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Online Tool Helps Coastal Communities Plan for Climate Change

Scientists have developed many models to predict what will happen as the world’s climate changes, but it’s not always easy for community planners to use them.  That’s why the Nature Conservancy developed an online tool that combines the best of those models to show likely problems in coastal cities and rural areas between now and the year 2100. 

The United States has more than 400 barrier islands off its coast – long, thin sand bars that provide important places for migrating birds to rest and feed. 14 of them are owned by the Nature Conservancy along this state’s Eastern Shore.  Working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the University of Virginia and other partners, the conservancy has studied those islands, nearby meadows of sea grass, oyster reefs and other natural features that protect communities on the water.

“We have one of the most studied coastal regions in the world,” says Jill Bieri, director of the Virginia Coast Reserve, established by the Nature Conservancy to help communities assess risk and minimize problems. 

After Hurricane Sandy, the organization got money to develop the Virginia Eastern Shore Coastal Resilience Mapping and Decision Support Tool.  That’s a mouthful, but it’s pretty simple to use.  It begins with a map of the area you want to study.

“This is Nassawadox,” Bieri says, pointing to her computer screen. “This is our office right here.  This is Upshur Creek and Phillips Creek over here.”

Then, she begins to overlay maps that show other things: roads that are vulnerable to sea level rise, wildlife habitat, wetlands, human populations, schools,  fire and rescue stations.

In response to what the tool shows, Jill Bieri says communities might decide to protect barrier islands, construct oyster reefs, raise roads and buildings, grade and landscape shorelines with salt-tolerant plants.  It could also mean a ban on projects in areas at risk of flooding.

“North and south of us, up and down the eastern seaboard, we’re still seeing construction in these areas that are very vulnerable,” says Bieri.

The online tool shows scenarios based on different degrees of sea level rise, hurricanes and other dangerous weather.

“The more frequent storms that we’re now getting and the higher intensity of these Nor’easters are really doing more damage, because they’re here through multiple tidal cycles,” Bieri explains.  “There’s rain. There’s storm surge.  There could be wind involved as well, so it can just be around for a lot longer.”

With eleven people on its Eastern Shore staff, an historic home and a large office building, Bieri says the Nature Conservancy had a special interest in starting here, but it’s helped 21 cities and states in North America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Indonesia to adapt the tool for their own planning purposes. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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