People who live along the Atlantic seaboard are accustomed to dealing with environmental extremes: salt spray that can kill just about anything green; relentless wind that whips vegetation into Leaning Tower of Pisa shapes; sand, shells, rocks and dead fish that come and go. But rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather, both driven in part by the changing climate, can make caring for a coastal property even more difficult.
The challenges may seem like more than a shoreline dweller can tackle. But residents not only can take actions to adapt to the conditions brought on by climate change: They can also take actions that, even on a small individual scale, can help slow climate change itself.
Many practices must be tailored to specific local conditions. But some principles can apply pretty much anywhere: Skip the lawn, think native, and remember that anything you put in the ground, such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers, will wind up in the water, only worsening the adverse impacts of climate change. Read on for tips.
1. Know that you can make a difference
The first step may involve a change of attitude.
“People need to feel empowered,” says Juliana Barrett, who helps communities tackle climate change through her work as a coastal ecologist and educator with the Connecticut Sea Grant Program and at the University of Connecticut. “With sea-level rise it’s like, ‘I can’t stop it – it’s beyond my control,'” she says, adding that people need to feel “like they’re at least doing something for themselves or their community to combat how climate change is impacting them.”
2. Get ready for weather extremes
Barrett encourages coastal residents to prepare for more extreme weather events, including polar opposites such as drought sandwiched by torrential rains.
You can take simple actions like setting up rain barrels to provide water in dry times. And you can improve your property’s resilience using rain gardens that can help soak up excess water.
3. Look for alternatives to lawns
What should you plant in your climate-ready coastal yard? Not lawns, according to just about every expert.
Most traditional lawn-care equipment, such as gas-powered mowers, creates heat-trapping carbon pollution.
What’s more, lawns tend to be nutrient- and chemical-intensive, says Judy Preston, a coastal gardening expert with Connecticut Sea Grant and the Long Island Sound Study. People tend to over-water, using a resource that climate change has made more precious than ever. And they over-fertilize, leaching unwanted nitrogen into the adjacent water, depleting oxygen and killing wildlife.
‘Embrace messy’ and leave plants and grass clippings to rot and replenish soil on their own. ‘Nature’s got it all figured out.’
The biggest offenders are the products that pre-mix fertilizers and pesticide, Preston says. “At worst, it’s just a bad idea. Basically, you’re putting this broad spectrum of excess food, excess chemicals on,” she says. “Of course it kills anything, and then it takes time to put back microorganisms in the soil.”
In contrast, healthy soil – that means soil with smaller amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and plenty of useful microorganisms – helps slow climate change by allowing more carbon to be stored in the soil, in what experts refer to as “carbon sequestration.”
“There’s all the good stuff that goes on below the surface which most people don’t think about,” Preston says.
4. Use more native plants
Native species tend to be most adaptable to the vagaries of the local climate, even as it changes. And salt-tolerant plants that can handle storms and frequent flooding work best right along a shoreline.
Preston says native plants can take less work than you may think. Start by just reducing lawn area and creating more wildlife habitat. If you really want a lawn, try adding some clover, fescue or sedge to that Kentucky blue grass that Preston calls a “bee desert.”
If you must use fertilizer, opt for an organic, slow-release variety. And she encourages property owners to “embrace messy.” Leave plants to rot and replenish soil on their own. “Nature’s got it all figured out,” she says.
For more guidance, see Connecticut Sea Grant’s landscaping guides and fact sheets for shoreline residents interested in controlling coastal erosion, dealing with salt spray, and keeping stormwater out of the stormwater systems.
For those living farther south, North Carolina Sea Grant offers guides with several different landscape templates, shoreline plants, and a checklist designed to help people make better decisions and minimize impacts while also factoring in sea-level rise and higher tides.
5. Prepare for more erosion
Encroaching water can flood, collapse, and otherwise wreck the coastal landscape.
How residents handle that erosion makes a difference. “Many people in coastal communities don’t look closely at the types and causes of the erosion they’re dealing with,” says Spencer Rogers, a coastal engineer and geologist at North Carolina Sea Grant and at University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science. “They think that solutions for one will work for all.”
He likes to point out that erosion can come from seasonal fluctuations, but it can also come from big storms.
Seasonal changes, such as erosion in winter, tend to correct themselves in summer, he says. But erosion from storms and factors like sea-level rise most likely will require action, unless beachfront residents are willing to face eventually having to abandon their property. Storms often bring sudden and catastrophic changes, while sea-level rise is much slower.
One recommendation common for beachfront properties involves building and rebuilding dunes, planting them with beach grass to make them sturdier. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do so, Rogers says.
“The mistake people make is they frequently don’t appreciate dunes are not very good protection from long-term gradual erosion,” says Rogers, author of “The Dune Book.” And they’re not great for seasonal fluctuations unless they’re farther back on the beach from where those fluctuations reach.
“You can plant all the dunes you want and seasonal fluctuations are going to take them out. They won’t be there for major storm events,” he says.
Farther back and higher is where they need to go. And if a storm takes them out, don’t put them back where they were – build them back from where they’ve moved. Planting dune grass will help capture sand to hold the dunes. Do not use plants less capable of resisting dunes, as those ineffective nearby plants would tend to compete with the dune grasses for nourishment.
“The plants that are native are excellent at tolerating very, very nasty conditions,” Rogers says. “A whole host of things that kill almost all other plants, dune grasses are adapted to.”
6. Collaborate with your neighbors
Individual actions, while useful, still can’t beat a group effort.
“This idea of people working together is happening more and more,” says Barrett of Connecticut Sea Grant.
A group effort can be more effective through something like a beach association where each home has beach access. Neighbors can come together and share access paths, which cuts down the number of routes flood waters have to flow back in.
Living shorelines have become increasingly popular for re-establishing how nature makes shorelines – with natural absorption features like salt marshes and gradual run-ups for waves that can temper water action. But they often require complex permitting from state and local authorities, and they can be expensive. In addition, what one property owner does can affect the coastal properties of neighbors. So a group effort is most effective.
Barrett recalls neighbors in a small beach association joining to deal with beach grass and winding up working on a beach resilience plan for sea-level rise and flooding. But then they contacted their two neighboring beach associations, who did the same thing: “I thought that was pretty remarkable.”