Conservation groups want to save Florida's natural defenses against hurricanes

Salt marshes can play a protective role from possible damage during storms, bur are threatened by unchecked development.

click to enlarge Salt marshes can play a protective role from possible damage during storms. - Photo via Florida News Service
Photo via Florida News Service
Salt marshes can play a protective role from possible damage during storms.

With the start of hurricane season, salt marshes are among the natural features playing a critical role in protecting coastal communities by absorbing storm surges, reducing flooding and preventing erosion.

Coastal wetlands with a variety of flora are filled and drained by the tide. On average, salt marshes provide $695,000 of value per square mile from possible damage during storms, according to a University of California-San Diego study.

Heather Nagy, strategic conservation planning coordinator for the North Florida Land Trust, emphasized the critical role these marshes play.

"They can absorb up to 1.5 million gallons of flood water, which is equivalent to about 2.25 Olympic-size swimming pools," Nagy pointed out. "They're truly amazing at what they can do to help observe water, absorb that wave energy, and decrease damage to neighboring communities."

Nagy is part of the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, which aims to save 1 million acres of salt marsh stretching from the coasts of North Carolina to Florida. Other natural barriers include living shorelines, forests, estuaries and barrier islands, to name a few.

As sea levels rise, salt marshes naturally retreat landward. However, movement can be hindered by natural barriers or human-made structures, like roads and buildings. Nagy noted each state in the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative is forming teams and roadmaps to protect and restore existing salt marshes and conserve migration corridors.

"We're all going to be working together to identify, prioritize and advance salt marsh projects that will help to protect and bolster the resilience of local communities," Nagy emphasized. "And also infrastructure throughout Northeast Florida, through all of those areas of salt marsh."

Studies show areas with intact natural defenses such as dunes, wetlands and marshes experienced less damage than areas where such features had been degraded or removed. Nagy added protecting and strengthening an area's natural defenses is one of the best ways to prepare for storm season.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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