Research

Private landowners hold key to future of coastal marshes

Vulnerable marshes, vulnerable homes

photo of Fence Creek marsh in Madison, Conn.

Fence Creek in Madison, Conn., is one of many tidal marshes near neighborhoods vulnerable to sea level rise. (Photo by Chris Elphick.)

While popular with conservation groups, coastal easements that prevent development in order to protect marshland are not favored by property owners, according to a new study by the University of Connecticut and Virginia Tech. Since private landowners will be critical partners in efforts to save coastal marshes in the face of climate change and rising sea levels, identifying the best strategies will be essential to achieving success, the research shows. The study was funded by Connecticut Sea Grant, UConn, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation Environmental Fellowship.
The findings, based on the results of surveys conducted in 2015 of 1,002 owners of Connecticut coastal properties, suggest that relying on education about sea level rise and the ecosystem benefits of marshes alone will not protect land from changes brought about by storms and climate change. Landowners in the study harbor skeptical attitudes about granting easements, based on concerns that they will be offered a fair price in exchange for keeping land as open space where marshes can migrate as seas rise. They also worry that environmental organizations that obtain the easements “might not act fairly or transparently in their efforts to encourage tidal marsh migration,” the researchers write in an article published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of Aug. 7.
The study, conducted by Christopher Field and Chris Elphick of UConn and Ashley Dayer of Virginia Tech, emphasizes that strategies that assume marshes will migrate inland won’t work without the cooperation of private landowners. Whether they decide to leave room for marshes to move inland or instead build seawalls that harden shorelines means either saving tidal wetlands and their many ecological, economic and recreational benefits, or losing them altogether. In the study area alone – the Connecticut coast – there are an estimated 30,000 landowners in the zone projected to become tidal marsh by 2100, and millions of people globally live near tidal marshes. The survey was conducted following two major storms – Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – so the results are a valid measure of whether that experience influences attitudes about taking action to lessen future risks. While landowners whose properties flooded during the hurricane were 1.4 times more likely to say they may be willing to sell their vulnerable land outright, this result may overstate what people would actually do. For example, although the study did not investigate past landowner behavior, the researchers note that fewer than 100 properties in the study area were acquired during federal buyout programs implemented after the recent hurricanes, though many more were eligible.
If land protection agreements with nonprofits and government agencies aren’t the answer, what offers more promise for the future of marshes? Surveyed landowners responded favorably to the idea of restrictive covenants, even though they typically do not include financial incentives. Under restrictive covenants, an entire neighborhood agrees to forgo building seawalls and other shoreline armoring structures. These armoring strategies can be damaging in the long run, because they can divert erosion and flooding to adjoining properties and natural habitats. Coastal landowners also liked the notion of future interest agreements. Under these programs, private landowners agree to accept fair market value of their property at the time of signing if future flooding reduces the value by more than half. That future flooding would allow dry upland to turn into coastal marsh.
The article, “Landowner behavior can determine the success of conservation strategies for ecosystem migration under sea-level rise,” offers broad implications for how to best design programs to mitigate other climate change effects. Field, a post-doctoral fellow in the UConn Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was lead author of the study. Elphick is an associate professor of conservation biology in UConn EEB and the Center of Biological Risk, and Dayer is assistant professor of human dimensions at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.
The primary contact for the researchers is: Christopher Field: Christopher.field@uconn.edu.
Prof. Chris Elphick can be reached at: chris.elphick@uconn.edu (best option); cell: (860) 985-4347
Prof. Dayer can be reached through the Virginia Tech communications office: Heidi Ketler, Interim Director of Communications, College of Natural Resources and Environment, (540) 231-6157.
For copy of the article, send a request to: pnasnews@nas.edu.

Clinging Jellyfish Increasing in Groton CT area

Clinging jellyfish, a small, potentially toxic, gelatinous species that tends to live in or near eelgrass beds, are increasing in Mumford Cove and have been sighted in other places in Groton, Connecticut, according to researcher Annette Govindarajan of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Supported by an award from Connecticut Sea Grant, Govindarajan is studying the local population of these jellies. If you encounter clinging jellyfish, avoid contact and if you are stung and experience a reaction, you may want to consider seeking medical treatment. Download Clinging Jelly FAQ sheet - June2017
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clinging jelly

Clinging jellyfish

Sea Grant Awards Three Research Grants Under Long Island Sound Study

Sea Grant Awards Three Research Grants Under the Long Island Sound Study

Long Island Sound viewed from Stratford Point, CT.
Sea Grant Awards Funds for Three New Research Projects for Long Island Sound photo of Stratford Point by Amy Mandelbaum

Contacts: Robert Burg, Long Island Sound Study, 203-977-1546
Barbara Branca, New York Sea Grant, 631-632-6956
Peg VanPatten, Connecticut Sea Grant, 860-405-9128

The Sea Grant programs of Connecticut and New York have awarded more than $676,000 in Long Island Sound Study research grants to three projects that will look into some of the most serious threats to the ecological health of Long Island Sound, a water body designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as an Estuary of National Significance. The Long Island Sound Study, conducted under the EPA’s National Estuary Program, is a cooperative effort between the EPA and the states of Connecticut and New York to restore and protect the Sound and its ecosystems.This suite of projects addresses the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon through the Sound and its surrounding tributaries and wetlands.

Title: How will sea level rise-driven shifts in wetland vegetation alter ecosystem services?

University of Connecticut: Beth Lawrence, Ashley Helton, Chris Elphick

Total: $317,828 plus $79,458 in matching funds

Coastal marshes that fringe Long Island Sound are the dynamic ecosystems between land and sea that provide essential “ecosystem services” to surrounding communities such as improved water quality, carbon removal to the sediment, and protection from storm surge. However, as these valuable wetlands are increasingly altered by rising seas, invasive species and increased salinity, there are changes in carbon and nitrogen cycling as well as in plant species composition. Research conducted by Beth Lawrence and her team at the University of Connecticut will increase our understanding and improve coastal management by explicitly quantifying the direct and indirect effects of sea level rise on carbon and nitrogen cycling. The results will be extended to a broad audience by developing a series of questions and problems for high school students that integrates a case study of how sea level rise is altering coastal ecosystems associated with Long Island Sound.

Title: Nutrient and Carbon Fluxes through Long Island Sound, Linking River Sources to Impacted Areas

The University of Connecticut: Michael Whitney and Penny Vlahos

Total: $278,851

In Long Island Sound, the quality of its waters and health of its biological communities are strongly influenced by the concentration and movement of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the water.  Both nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as carbon enter the Sound through rivers and are consumed and transformed along the way. University of Connecticut marine scientists Michael Whitney and Penny Vlahos will study sources, movement, and fates of these materials, as well as their flow from wastewater treatment plants, to understand the input from river sources and impacted areas. This will help determine the nature of sources and whether certain locations can store carbon. The results will inform management decisions for the Sound.

Title: Sources and fluxes of excess nitrogen supplied by fresh submarine groundwater discharge (FSGD) to Long Island Sound (LIS)

Stony Brook University: Troy Rasbury, Kirk Cochran and Henry Bokuniewicz

Total: $119,776 plus $39,775 in matching funds

Fresh submarine groundwater discharge along Long Island’s north shore is an important source of nitrogen loading into the Sound. In some locations this discharge supplies as much nitrogen to bays as a local river and about 10 to 40 times as much as a local wastewater treatment plant. However, identifying whether the nitrogen source is natural or from a synthetic source (such as fertilizer) is difficult. Researchers from Stony Brook University will use a unique combination of isotope tracers to fingerprint the sources of nitrogen to groundwater as well as processes that affect nitrogen concentrations. The team will be able to quantify atmospheric, septic, animal waste, and fertilizer sources of new nitrogen entering the Sound via groundwater discharge in three “hot spots” with varying land use: a residential area/ golf course, a park near a sewage treatment plant, and an agricultural area. Such source information is critical in developing management strategies to reduce nitrogen loadings.

“These three projects will increase our understanding of Long Island Sound and directly support wise protection and restoration of its valuable resources” said Mark Tedesco, director of the U.S. EPA Long Island Sound Office, which manages the Long Island Sound Study partnership, and which provided the majority of funds for the Sea Grant-administered research projects. Since 2000, the Long Island Sound grant program has awarded more than 30 grants to scientists whose work helps meet the needs of decision-makers to improve the management of Long Island Sound.

“With these awards, the Connecticut and New York Sea Grant programs continue their partnership with EPA and universities in the region to document and better understand how Long Island Sound works, and how its workings will likely to be affected by a variety of factors, from attempts to reduce human nutrient inputs to the Sound to rising sea levels,” said Bill Wise, director of the New York Sea Grant Program.

“It is exciting to see different researchers using complementary approaches that, together, lead to an overall better understanding of the sources and sinks of nutrients. There is a lot of creativity in the academic communities that can contribute to a healthy Long Island Sound.” said Sylvain De Guise, director of the Connecticut Sea Grant program.

A portion of the research funding comes from the two Sea Grant programs. Connecticut Sea Grant, based at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, and New York Sea Grant, based at Stony Brook University (SUNY), belong to the National Sea Grant College Program network, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To arrange an interview with a researcher, please use one of the contacts listed.  For descriptions of each research project, visit any of these web sites:

www.longislandsoundstudy.net

www.seagrant.sunysb.edu

http://seagrant.uconn.edu

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