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Wendi Weber column: Facing our climate's 'new normal' with solutions for people and wildlife in Virginia
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Climate’s ‘new normal’

Wendi Weber column: Facing our climate's 'new normal' with solutions for people and wildlife in Virginia

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In times of crisis, our actions need to be informed by our past and guided by our vision for the future. When life-altering circumstances like the pandemic and climate change test our resilience, we must follow the science and choose adaptable solutions.

June is National Ocean Month, when we highlight the invaluable contributions the global ocean makes to our economy, environment and wildlife resources. It’s also a time to reflect on the challenges our coastal communities are facing, including higher sea levels and more frequent intense storms.

The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1. This year, there’s a new yardstick for comparing year-to-year hurricane activity, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently updated its climate normal based on data from the previous 30 years.

The new normal reflect increased Atlantic storm activity, along with warmer, wetter conditions on the East Coast. The average Atlantic hurricane season has two more named storms and one more hurricane than it did using older data. Beyond that, researchers at Colorado State University have predicted an “above average” Atlantic hurricane season this year.

In the face of rising seas and more formidable weather, we need a resilient coast that can absorb storm surge and wave energy and recover quickly, with little need for repair. Using natural infrastructure, we can create such a coast.

What does natural infrastructure look like? It looks like healthy salt marshes that soak up rising water like sponges and provide habitat for species like the saltmarsh sparrow, whose numbers are declining rapidly.

It looks like free-flowing rivers that reduce flooding of nearby communities and let fish swim from the ocean to historical spawning grounds. And it looks like oyster reefs and other living shorelines that buffer coastal zones from wave erosion and create new habitat for marine life.

In short, natural infrastructure provides solutions that benefit people and wildlife, improve with time and have a high return on investment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners — including towns, states, tribes, universities, industry, landowners and nonprofits — are well on the way to making natural infrastructure the new normal in Virginia and across the Atlantic coast.

Nearly a decade after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities and wildlife habitat from Florida to Maine, incredible work has been done — beaches, dunes and marshes restored; dams removed; and living shorelines built.

This is what success looks like: record numbers of shorebirds nesting on restored beaches; migratory fish in stretches of river they haven’t reached in centuries; beaches, roads and stream crossings holding up during storms; and lessons-learned applied to future projects and informing revised regulations.

At the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, for example, centuries of draining the swamp to harvest timber and grow crops, coupled with development along the swamp’s margins, had compromised the landscape’s natural drainage.

The changes dried out the swamp’s peat soil, which, unable to absorb water, led to escalated flooding and elevated fire risk for the wildlife refuge and neighboring communities. In 2011, a wildfire started by a lightning strike burned through Great Dismal for more than 100 days.

Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the service received more than $3 million in federal funds to build 12 water control structures in the Portsmouth Ditch area, located in the northeastern corner of the swamp, to help restore that drainage.

Today, these structures are working as intended.

They’re helping disperse water, allowing it to leave the swamp more slowly and in more locations, reducing the threat of downstream flooding within the refuge and in communities beyond its boundaries.

A return to more natural — and slower — patterns of drainage is also helping keep the swamp’s peat soil from drying out. The resulting reduction in wildfire risk is good news for people and nature.

Increasing climate challenges call for smart, adaptive and innovative solutions. In warmer, wetter, stormier parts of the world, strengthening natural infrastructure is the new normal we need to rise to these challenges.

Wendi Weber was appointed as North Atlantic-Appalachian regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011. As regional director, Weber oversees Service activities in 14 states from Maine to Kentucky, and the District of Columbia. Contact her at: Wendi_Weber@fws.gov

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