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Translating science into a sustainable future for the Great Marsh

During an April workshop at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Mass., scientists and stakeholders met to start an important conversation about using the best available science to inform decisions that will affect a 20,000-acre tidal marsh threatened by climate change.
Translating science into a sustainable future for the Great Marsh

Scientists and stakeholders look for common ground in the 20,000-acre Great Marsh, which includes the Plum Island Estuary. Photo credit: USFWS

How would you convince the mayor of the Newburyport, Massachusetts, to support saltmarsh restoration?

That’s what Julia Godtfredsen was hoping to figure out at a recent symposium that brought scientists and stakeholders together at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport to identify shared interests in protecting the 20,000-acre Plum Island Estuary, also known as the Great Marsh. 

“We need to see a direct link between research results and consequences for the community,” said Godtfredsen, who serves as the conservation agent for the small coastal city on the North Shore of Massachusetts. “The information needs to translate to the kinds of day-to-day decisions we need to make.”

Facilitated by the Refuge, its conservation partners, and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), the Great Marsh Resiliency Modeling Workshop provided an opportunity for representatives from local communities, nongovernmental organizations, and state agencies to ask practical questions of researchers investigating how climate change will impact coastal systems in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Questions like: How can the model results be used to inform specific actions? Which restoration approaches should be applied, and where? And perhaps most importantly: Why does it matter?

“It’s all well and good to talk about benefits to the marsh, but we need to translate those benefits to community impacts,” said Pam DiBona, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program.

That’s because for residents of Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport, Essex, Salisbury, and Rowley, Mass., the Great Marsh is more than just a coastal feature. “It’s our backyard,” explained Lisa O’Donnell, Chair of the Essex Board of Selectmen. “It defines us.”

It’s also within their jurisdiction, and thus directly impacted by decisions made by elected officials – both paid employees and volunteers – who serve on planning boards, conservation commissions, and town meetings in those communities.

“We need to provide good information to the citizens who show up in cafeterias at night and make all of the decisions that affect the town,” said O’Donnell, “These are the people we need to convince of the value of this marsh.”

With community members accounting for about a fifth of attendees, the workshop represented a major step toward reaching this audience, “I’m amazed that the name ‘Great Marsh Resiliency Modeling Workshop’ didn’t scare you away,” joked Nancy Pau, a biologist at the Refuge and organizer of the event along with Megan Tyrrell of the North Atlantic LCC. “It’s a testament to all of the great work around climate change that is happening in this community,” she said. “Today we want to start the discussion about putting science and decisions together in the Great Marsh.”

Nancy Pau and Megan Tyrrell
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge biologist Nancy Pau and North Atlantic LCC Coastal Resilience Coordinator Megan Tyrrell lead a discussion about getting good science into the hands of local decision makers. Photo credit: Bridget Macdonald

In addition to opening the lines of communication between scientists and stakeholders, the workshop allowed community members to grapple with the challenge of modeling natural systems in the context of artificially accelerated change.

“We no longer have the luxury of stationarity,” said Scott Hagen, the John P. Laborde Endowed Chair for Sea Grant Research and Technology Transfer at Louisiana State University, explaining that the conventional “bathtub” approach to modeling tidal-marsh inundation no longer applies in a changing climate. “It’s time to step out of the bathtub,” he joked.

With support from the North Atlantic LCC, Hagen and collaborator James Morris, Director of the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences at the University of South Carolina, are attempting to do just that by coupling different modeling approaches to simulate how sea-level rise will affect system dynamics, such as hydrology and marsh growth rates.

Although dynamic models better approximate changing marsh conditions than static models, Hagen cautioned that there is still no crystal ball. “These are just diagnostic tools. There are no predictive models yet,” he explained. “This is really challenging science.”

While the scientists affirmed lingering uncertainties about the future of the marsh in presenting their results, they also acknowledged the realities for communities and agencies that operate on fiscal-year time scales. “Scientists love what we don’t know, but managers have to be able make decisions now with the best information that is available,” said Anne Giblin, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and principal investigator of the Plum Island Long Term Ecological Research project.

As such, the workshop provided an opportunity to bring the best information to the table to enable different stakeholders to make decisions that reflect current understanding of what’s in store for the marsh.

In the short term, the Great Marsh will likely be buffered from rapid conversion to open water due to its relatively good condition and high tidal range, which reflects the difference in height and and spread of water  between low and high tide. Marshes with high ranges are able to accommodate sea level increases and tend to be more stable. 

In the long term, the marsh’s natural rate of growth from the accretion of sediments will not be able to keep pace with sea-level rise because of a lack of new material inputs.

In the meantime, the composition of the marsh vegetation will change as high marsh vegetation converts to low marsh vegetation in response to more frequent tidal inundation.

Although the long-term prospects seemed discouraging, North Atlantic LCC coordinator Andrew Milliken reasoned that the fate of the estuary should not be seen as a foregone conclusion.

“We should be doing the best we can to help the existing marsh systems persist now so we make sure we have a bridge to the future, while simultaneously planning for those future marsh locations at higher elevations” he said.

What’s more, Milliken added, “You have an intact marsh and barrier beach system here. Maybe people in your communities already know that, but they might not be aware of the relative quality of this marsh, ” which happens to be the largest contiguous marsh in New England, and one of the largest on the Atlantic Coast.

“That’s an important message, and it should be accompanied by the message that this system is at risk,” Milliken said. “But now we have information that can help us target decisions and actions to protect the benefits provided by this marsh in the face of change.”

The next step is to figure out how to format that information so stakeholders can connect the dots between marsh resilience and community well being in order to justify decisions that benefit both, and begin to apply that information to inform work on the ground with the support of fellow citizens and policy makers. 

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