AGCI Insight

New report illuminates effective nature-based solutions for coastal communities

July 28, 2023
Millender Park Living Shoreline Project. Photo: Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. Florida Sea Grant/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As climate change impacts escalate, coastal communities are struggling to keep pace with increasing threats from rising sea levels, storm surges, and the repercussions these impacts have on lives, properties, and ecosystems. There is significant public and private interest in adaptation practices that use nature and natural processes—like augmenting salt marshes, protecting and replacing sand dunes, and building oyster reefs, to name a few—to conserve coastal ecosystems and protect at-risk infrastructure and communities. But how well do these approaches actually work?

Fusing academic research and on-the-ground experience

A new report from Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) and the University of Arizona Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions (CCASS) provides a first-of-its-kind comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of a variety of adaptation practices that leverage nature-based solutions (NbS) to help build more climate-resilient coasts and coastal communities.

The report, “Understanding the Effectiveness of Coastal Nature-based Solutions: Practitioner-based Learning,” integrates academic research with expert-reviewed insights from over 60 practitioners actively working on coastal climate change adaptation in the U.S. and Pacific Islands. Funded by several Climate Adaptation Science Centers within the United States Geological Survey, the report identifies a variety of nature-based solutions as well as the challenges in implementing them, and proposes a simple framework to assess the effectiveness of those solutions based on physical, ecological, economic, and social considerations.

Listening to voices from the front lines of climate change

The research team behind the report—Dr. Jessica Reilly-Moman (formerly AGCI, now University of Maine), Prof. Kathy Jacobs (University of Arizona), Dr. Richard Moss (Princeton University), and Dr. Glynis Lough (AGCI)—emphasizes the importance of integrating practical, local experience with well-vetted data to guide coastal adaptation decision-making. Such an approach helps policymakers and practitioners avoid repeating lessons learned in individual communities, thereby fast-tracking progress toward a more resilient future. 

“Billions of dollars are being spent each year to protect coastal communities from climate-fueled flooding and erosion,” notes Reilly-Moman, “but investments in approaches, nature-based and otherwise, need to be informed by what people are learning on-the-ground. We can’t afford to ignore the needs and knowledges of communities — learning from practitioners is crucial.”

Coordinating a national approach

The study spotlights a strong interest among practitioners in establishing a Community of Practice to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration among coastal NbS practitioners. Such a national coordination system could address the challenges of NbS implementation by:

  1. Helping to disseminate information about effective practices,
  2. Providing resources to support technical assistance, and
  3. Establishing a focused and accountable organization to evaluate alternative approaches and integrate learning.

The study authors believe a coordinated approach could contribute directly to the success of NbS specifically and to accelerating adaptation and resilience in the U.S. more broadly. In Jacobs view, “By integrating academic science and the wisdom of those on the ground, we’re paving the way to a more resilient future. The potential benefits of this pilot effort are immense for our at-risk coastal communities and ecosystems.”