Growing Returns

How to accelerate the use of natural infrastructure to aid climate change adaptation

Florida and North Carolina are once again recovering from hurricanes – this time, from two of the largest storms to hit our coasts in a century. In a climate-driven world, an important aspect of recovery is rebuilding in ways that make communities safer and more resilient to storms.

One strategy for reducing future flood risks is restoring natural features such as barrier islands, dunes, wetlands and floodplains. These natural infrastructure solutions help slow storm surge and hold flood waters, reducing the devastating impacts of storms.

Even where a dune was completely lost during a storm, it did its job. A dune’s job is to be a chew toy for waves, so that roads and houses aren’t being chewed on. (Photo Credit)

Yet, despite what we know about the effectiveness of these features, natural infrastructure is still an underutilized resilience strategy.

While there is broad agreement that natural infrastructure can be an effective, sustainable means to reduce flood damages, existing information gaps make it difficult for city planners, engineers and decision-makers to fully support these practices. The good news is there is work already underway to help fill these gaps and make natural infrastructure solutions more accessible. Read More »

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How can we reduce losses from coastal storms? Monitor the health of our coasts.

With a rapidly changing climate and more frequent extreme events like floods and droughts, comprehensive environmental monitoring will be increasingly important for coastal planners, farmers and others invested in natural resource management.

Monitoring efforts can cover the whole spectrum of environmental and socioeconomic concerns to provide a holistic picture of ecosystem health over the short- and long-term. This can help to inform future decisions and planning based on the most recent conditions and trends.

However, it can be difficult to coordinate monitoring efforts across political boundaries and agencies, and monitoring is expensive to maintain over time.

Luckily, Louisiana is already a world leader in utilizing collaborative monitoring data to inform coastal restoration and planning efforts. Read More »

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3 urgent steps for North Carolina to build back stronger and smarter

Hurricane Florence’s arrival so soon after Hurricane Matthew serves as an urgent reminder that new, effective and rapidly implementable solutions are required to meet the challenges of a new normal of extreme weather.

“It’s clear that we’re going to have to build back not only stronger, but smarter. When you have two so-called 500-year floods within a 23-months period, you know we’re not talking about 500-year floods. We’ve got to work to make sure we make smart decisions.”
– North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper after surveying extreme flooding from Hurricane Florence

It’s time to invest in three proven approaches to flood preparedness and economic development so that our communities can bounce forward to a more prosperous, safe and resilient future. Read More »

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Coastal communities must plan for the future instead of planning from the past

Ecosystem restoration planning has traditionally been based on a desire to restore a system to some historic condition – even as conditions are constantly evolving because of climate change. Rather than planning for the future, we often look back at what the system once was and try to replicate it. But in a rapidly changing world, this model is not sustainable.

A paradigm shift, from restoration projects that solve past problems to those which address future conditions, is necessary if we’re to continue living in coastal areas.

Photo Credit: USGS

Where I work in Louisiana, the Mississippi River Delta is facing an ongoing land loss crisis, due to a host of man-made and natural causes that is further exacerbated by the increasing effects of climate change.

To face this challenge, my Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition colleagues and I, in collaboration with Tulane University, University of New Orleans and The Water Institute of the Gulf, began an effort to improve the future performance of coastal restoration projects. We started by identifying approaches and investment opportunities that support the long-term viability of the ecosystem – and the communities and industries that depend on it.

It’s our hope that this work will help Louisiana and other coastal areas around the country better plan for the future. Read More »

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Following Florence, lessons from Harvey in recovery and resilience

With the impacts of Hurricane Florence continuing to unfold, coastal communities in the Southeast will soon be looking to other coastal areas, like Houston, as models for rebuilding resiliently. By doing so, they can speed their recovery and build back in smart ways – because that’s what resilience is all about.

For Houston, it wasn’t a single event that triggered discussions of resilience. Houston residents have faced a decade of intense storms and floods, with Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Together, these repeat catastrophic events sounded the alarm that past approaches to managing flood waters are not sufficient.

Last week, I went to Houston to help decision-makers explore how the city can realize its aim to become more resilient. One year after Harvey, Houston is still learning from its experiences and building upon lessons learned from mega-disasters like Katrina and Sandy to move more rapidly into resilience-building phases. That’s good news, because with more frequent, intense weather events, communities across the nation are going to have to rebuild smarter.

Once communities and officials in the Southeast begin thinking about recovery from Florence and preparing to rebuild, there are four key lessons they can learn from Houston after Harvey that will ultimately help them strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of the region. Read More »

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What a New York Times op-ed misses about living with climate change

There’s so much that Dr. Erle C. Ellis gets right in his recent op-ed in The New York Times, “Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have to Do That.

We’re exceeding Earth’s planetary boundaries. We need to adjust our expectations about what a new normal will look like. And there’s no single optimal solution for thriving in a changing climate.

Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library

But in making the case that it is people who will decide the future and not science or natural limits, Dr. Ellis falls into the binary trap he’s encouraging us to avoid. It’s not an either/or proposition.

We need both science and people to make our land and water systems more resilient so humanity and nature can prosper. Heck, we need every tool in the shed, including community engagement, flexible policy, money and good old-fashioned political will.

It may sound like an impossible order, but it’s already happening in some surprising places. Read More »

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Climate change will force us to make tough decisions. Adaptive management can help.

In the face of climate change, it can be difficult to balance environmental, economic and community needs, but it’s a challenge we must overcome to adapt, survive and thrive.

To do this, professionals from multiple sectors across the globe are increasingly incorporating adaptive management techniques into resource planning for all kinds of essential ecosystems – from major watersheds like the Mississippi River Delta to high food production regions like the Corn Belt.

The lessons learned from past management decisions in these places will help shape resilience strategies for communities and industries around the world as they prepare for a new normal. Read More »

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Environmental impact bonds can help make coastal communities safer, sooner. Here’s how.

Last year’s hurricane season was the most destructive disaster season in U.S. history, causing $265 billion in damage and forcing more than one million Americans from their homes.

As climate change causes weather to get more extreme, coastal communities across the country are struggling to find cost-effective solutions to enhance their resiliency to storms and develop new ways to finance that work.

Photo Credit: Karen A. Westphal, Audubon Louisiana

How can we help make coastal communities more resilient more quickly? How can we engage the private sector in coastal resiliency efforts and generate a financial return for investors?

Together with my EDF colleagues and partners, I set out to explore how one innovative financing mechanism – environmental impact bonds – might help. Read More »

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4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Drones have taken off in popularity, as updates in technology have made them more affordable and maneuverable. These advancements are allowing researchers to capture high-resolution data with accuracy, precision and ease, making drones a valuable tool for understanding how the world around us is changing, and how we can manage this change.

My Environmental Defense Fund colleagues are exploring ways drones can help us build ecosystem resilience, from corn fields in the heartland to wetlands along our coasts.

Here are four inspiring examples. Read More »

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This new technology allows you to visit coastal Louisiana from your couch

There is nothing like a boat ride through Louisiana’s Wax Lake Delta. This lush landscape, teeming with birds and wildlife, is an example of what Louisiana’s coast can look like if we use the Mississippi River to build land and increase the state’s resilience to storms and rising seas. It’s truly a beautiful place.

In stark contrast, a short plane ride over the region from New Orleans shows the true reality: Much of Louisiana’s coast is disappearing, as coastal wetlands cut off from the Mississippi River turn into open water. This Swiss cheese effect is startling when seen from the air. Read More »

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