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Using Green Infrastructure to Enhance Coastal Resilience

Today, the Administration released a new report on the role of green infrastructure can help enhance coastal resilience, with associated research recommendations.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. As such, this week presents an opportunity to reflect on how we as a nation prepare for hurricanes and other coastal hazards, particularly as climate change contributes to increased frequency and intensity of extreme-weather events.

Enhancing preparedness to coastal climate-related threats has been a priority of this Administration. As President Obama remarked this past May, at the National Hurricane Center’s annual hurricane season outlook and preparedness briefing in Miami:

“We’re…focusing on making ourselves more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate that are having significant effects on both the pace and intensity of some of these storms. The best climate scientists in the world are telling us that extreme weather events like hurricanes are likely to become more powerful. When you combine stronger storms with rising seas, that’s a recipe for more devastating floods.”

And indeed, Federal agencies have made noteworthy progress under the Obama Administration in addressing the potential threats that natural hazards pose to U.S. coastal regions.

But there is still more we can do, particularly when it comes to protecting and restoring natural defenses like wetlands and reefs. These and other types of coastal “green infrastructure” buffer waves, reduce soil erosion, and provide other ecosystem services that can help protect and enhance the resilience of coastal regions.

Coastal green infrastructure has been demonstrably effective in mitigating damage from storms and other hazards. During Hurricane Katrina, coastal wetlands helped protect parts of southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi by acting as a sponge, soaking up water that pounded the coast during the storm and reducing the inland penetration of storm surge. And during Hurricane Sandy, oyster reefs absorbed some of the energy of storm-generated waves and decreased erosion in regions like North Carolina.

Given the considerable and growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of green infrastructure, high-level expert groups such as the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have recommended that the Administration do more to support adoption of green-infrastructure approaches alongside more conventional, “gray” approaches. Federal agencies are heeding that call. For instance:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Transportation came together in 2014 to form the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, a network of Federal, non-governmental, and private-sector entities committed to helping communities more easily implement green infrastructure.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Digital Coast helps people learn more about and take advantage of opportunities to use green infrastructure by maintaining a web portal with relevant online training, information, and other resources, including interactive maps and visualization tools.
  • In January 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published Use of Natural and Nature-Based Features (NNBF) for Coastal Resilience, which provides an integrative framework that focuses on classifying NNBF, developing performance metrics, adaptive management, and other key topics related to the use of ecosystem-based approaches to improve coastal resilience.

And today, the Administration, through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), is releasing Ecosystem-Service Assessment: Research Needs for Coastal Green Infrastructure, a new report that recommends areas for prioritized Federal research to support the integration of coastal green infrastructure into risk reduction, resilience planning, and decision making.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announces the new report at the launch event for the Resilient New Orleans strategy at the Ashe PowerHouse Theater in New Orleans on August 25, 2015 (skip to 43:20).

The report also serves as a useful reference for planners and decision makers by providing an introduction to major categories of coastal green infrastructure and associated ecosystem services, as well as factors that should be taken into account when considering if, when, and how to incorporate coastal green infrastructure into a given setting.

As we continue to drive coastal preparedness efforts at local, regional, and national levels, we must recognize and work to leverage the benefits of natural systems – not only in defending against the physical threats of storms, floods, and other coastal hazards, but also in supporting social and economic development while keeping our coasts healthy and livable. We must consider how to build and rebuild sustainably in coastal areas, in ways that successfully combine green and gray infrastructure. And we must actively strive to create the coastal legacy that future generations deserve.

Tamara Dickinson is Principal Assistant Director for Environment & Energy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.