The results looked promising. Thousands of plugs of wetland grass planted along the shoreline of Portsmouth Inlet were thriving.
Nature can be a fickle partner in the fight against climate change.
New Hampshire is experiencing more extreme weather events, storm surges and coastal flooding, and scientists are looking for ways to adapt to those changes. Their efforts don’t get much attention, but as climate change increasingly threatens the state’s ecosystem and economy, these small steps could have a big impact.
Take, for example, the “living coastline” project that researchers have created at three locations on the coast. Most recently, it was held at Katz’s Cove off Market Street in Portsmouth. The goal of the joint venture between the state Department of Environmental Services and the University of New Hampshire Jackson Estuarine Research Institute in Durham is to restore natural shorelines and strengthen them against future storms and storm surges.
“When we think about coastal engineering practices, perhaps our best teacher is nature itself,” said Aidan Barry, coastal resilience and habitat specialist in DES’ Coastal Program.
Rather than relying on man-made structures, researchers are using native plants, rocks, sand, and other organic materials to control erosion and protect coastal habitats.
That’s the kind of approach called for in the federal government’s fifth annual climate assessment report, released earlier this month.
The report presents dire predictions that the impacts of climate change will increase. But it also highlighted how communities are adapting to reduce risk.
Recommended actions include:
Upgrade stormwater infrastructure to handle heavier rainfall.
Manage vegetation to reduce wildfire risk.
Changing agricultural practices to manage drought conditions.
Implement nature-based solutions, such as coastal wetland and oyster reef restoration, to reduce shoreline erosion.
chase wild geese
Grant McCann wrote his master’s thesis on the Cutts Cove Living Shoreline Project in 2018. Now a coastal habitat researcher at UNH Jackson Estuarine Research Institute, McCann oversees that site as well as two previous projects at Wagon Hill Farm and North Mill Pond in Durham. in Portsmouth.
Similar projects have proven successful in mid-Atlantic states, McCann said. “They seem to recover much better from storms than natural wetlands or really hardened beaches,” he says.
After five to 10 years, “they start to resemble natural salt marshes in terms of their function and the way they serve as habitat for fish and birds,” McCann says.
“It also looks a lot better,” Barry said.
The researchers were keen to try out this approach. But New England’s harsher winters pose additional challenges.
“In the warm mid-Atlantic region, the tides are small,” Barry says. “They don’t have to deal with frigid winters caused by ice. That’s something our engineers and staff really had to consider from a monitoring standpoint.”
They didn’t plan for the goose.
Project managers first noticed some damage in late 2020. “I noticed that some of the grass had been pulled out and it looked like a crater,” Makan said.
The damage coincided with the annual southward migration of Canada geese.
Sure enough, the geese returned every fall. They didn’t just nibble on the grass. They tore young plants from their roots, leaving behind a moon-like landscape of craters.
The new plants are highly attractive to geese and provide a lot of nutritional value with little effort, the scientists said.
“We’re preparing a salad bar for these geese,” DES’ Barry said.
Makan said he felt frustrated. “When you’re trying to do this much, it seems like you’ll finally get over the hump and be good for a few years. And that’s another thing you never thought about,” he said.
“It was a little shocking,” he said.
“Because as an ecologist, I want to see this project work, but also as a master’s student, I want to show good results. But halfway through the project, it kind of fell apart. ” said McCann.
To make matters worse, a flock of geese has taken up residence in a nearby restored park. “This is not just a November-December problem, it’s a year-round problem,” Makan said.
The researchers decided to outsmart the geese.
In May, approximately 20 volunteers from DES, UNH, and the community spent five days planting 8,000 marsh grasses. They also installed wooden snow fencing to prevent geese from landing there, and hunting cameras to monitor the project.
It seems to be working fine. “They don’t like fences at all,” Makan said.
Project leaders also wanted to encourage people to walk their dogs in the area. They noticed that the geese seemed to be avoiding Wagon Hill Farm, a popular spot for dog walkers.
There was a silver lining to the goose attack, McCann said, and it helped solve an unexpected puzzle. “I hope our stupidity helps someone,” he said.
Planning for climate change
The first living shoreline project here began in 2016 after rebuilding a bridge between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, to reduce some of the impacts to salt marshes, tidal flats, and shellfish habitat. Barry said it has begun.
“The idea is to supplement that. We’re going to recreate some of that natural habitat while protecting that coastal area from future erosion,” Barry said.
Adapting to climate change is now part of their plans.
“Thinking about sea level rise and thinking about projects is something that often needs to be considered in coastal areas,” Barry said. “As water moves more, so does erosion.”
Rebecca Katz, DES coastal resilience grant specialist, said these projects are designed to build resilience and allow coastlines to recover after natural disasters or storm surges.
“Projects like this are an investment in the future,” Katz said. “They are investments in ecosystems, communities and coastlines.”
Katz said the rate of erosion was alarming at Wagon Hill Farm, which is located on U.S. Highway 4 but behind the Oyster River and Little Bay. “We were losing about three feet of shoreline every five years,” she says.
Now that coastline is coming back.
Barnacles are living on the rocks and small fish populations are returning to these areas, Barry said. “We’re really rebuilding the ecosystem,” he says.
Katz said the success of the Wagon Hill Farm project “sets an example and people start learning more from it. This creates a feedback loop of asking for better solutions again and again until it’s scalable.”
save and learn
UNH’s McCann said that through trial and error, researchers can learn something useful for future projects.
At Wagon Hill Farm, we realized that we needed to make sure the rocks blocking the current weren’t too large to prevent erosion behind us. At North Mill Pond, “multiple plantings may be necessary to get the vegetation well established,” he said.
And in Cutts Cove? “We learned that geese can be a problem,” he said.
“Are these individual projects going to have a big impact? Probably not,” McCann said. But living coastlines are “very important for these really small places that have a lot of value to people,” he said.
DES’ Barry said what happens on the coastline will impact the state’s tourism industry and economy. But it’s also a source of New Hampshire pride, he said.
“We’re doing this not only to think about the future and prepare for the changing landscape of sea level rise, but also to think about future generations who will live here,” he said. . “We strive to keep these habitats as pristine as possible so that future people can truly benefit and enjoy living close to the coast.”
Katz, a colleague at DES, said that is the mission of their agency. “It’s in the name of DES. We are environmental services,” she said. “We do projects like this not only to secure habitat, but to ensure the longevity of everything that lives there: fish, animals, plants and humans.”
Katz says such efforts also create natural beauty. “It may seem like a small benefit, but it actually enriches the landscape,” she said. “When you look down from the bridge or the highway, you see this little restored wetland.”
While combating climate change may seem like a big deal, small projects like this can have a ripple effect, Katz said. “You just have to open your eyes to what you can change right in front of you,” she said. “Every piece has a place in the puzzle.”
in order to help
Interested in joining a New England outdoor environmental volunteer project? Visit Naturegroupie.org.