Coastal Change, Climate Change

Picture yourself heading “downashore” this summer. Maybe you’re leaving Philly en route to the Atlantic City Expressway. Out the car window, you watch the cemented city and suburbs change to the sandy-soiled Pine Barrens.

When you take the exit to your shore point of choice, the roadside soon opens up to reveal lush wetlands with slow-moving waters and green cordgrass waving with the breeze, the horizon flecked by tiny white birds diving for a treat or a stoic egret perched on distant branch.

These areas are coastal wetlands, and they provide us with more than beautiful scenery — they’re critical habitats for wildlife and act as a protective barrier for inland areas, absorbing some of the energy of intense coastal storms. 

What is your research and how does it relate to climate change? 

“I study the impacts of climate change on coastal habitats.” 

Beth Watson, PhD, Wetland Section Leader at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and a Drexel University faculty member, studies how coastal habitats like those of the Jersey Shore are changing in relation to global climate change.

beth and son
Beth Watson with son, Malakai, flying a drone to quantify seagrass extent in coastal lagoon in Baja California, Mexico. Beth lived in Mexico during fall 2019 as a Fulbright Scholar stationed at CICESE, a Mexican research center.

In some areas, sea level rise is occurring too rapidly for coastal habitats to adapt. They don’t have enough time to respond, for example, by migrating inland.

Wetlands are drowning, disappearing off the map. Maritime forests are also showing signs of stress. Saltwater intrusion into these coastal forested areas kills the vegetation, including trees, leaving “ghost forests” of bare tree trunks that have essentially been burned by salt.

In some areas, sea level rise is occurring too rapidly for coastal habitats to adapt. They don’t have enough time to respond, for example, by migrating inland.

Like much of climate change-related science, the facts can be disheartening. However, Watson’s perspective is to focus on solutions — and hope. 

“It’s a problem to solve, and we’re on it,” she says. 

Watson is working to better understand how global climate change impacts the relationship between carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions in different types of coastal wetlands. One research avenue explored the impacts of habitat disturbance on carbon sequestration in wetlands.

In addition to studying wetlands like those at the Jersey Shore, Watson’s endeavors have also taken her to California, México and Puerto Rico, where she has worked to understand carbon sequestration in coastal lagoons, as well as how restoration can increase carbon burial. Watson spent fall 2019 working at CICESE with Mexican colleagues studying how seagrass beds contribute to carbon sequestration.

Funded by a Fulbright Scholar award, Watson and her family also got to experience Mexican culture. Her son, Malakai, (in photo) attended an elementary school in Baja California that focuses its curriculum on sustainability. The family attended cultural events in Mexico City as part of the Fulbright orientation program and got to meet the U.S. ambassador to México.

group of scientists
Beth Watson (top row, third from left) attending the Coastal Blue Carbon Summit, in Shanghai, China last year. The summit brought together researchers from around the world who study carbon sequestration in coastal marsh ecosystems

What is carbon sequestration? 

Carbon sequestration is the storage of carbon from the atmosphere. Wetlands act as “carbon sinks” in this way, because they absorb atmospheric carbon and store it in their plant matter and their carbon-rich soils. When wetlands are lost or disturbed, such as by sea level rise or development pressure, these gases are released.  

By learning about the carbon sequestration potential of different coastal wetland areas, Watson’s research is helping contribute knowledge to state and federal agencies which have funding to preserve coastal wetland habitat.

Using a static chamber to quantify coastal methane emissions.

What trends are you starting to see? 

“There is a paradigm shift in the way people are approaching coastal wetland conservation,” Watson explains. 

There is now a more forward-thinking approach to preserving wetland habitat. Instead of restoring marshes to their current footprint, the science helps determine where they might be in the future (as they move and migrate) and that habitat is prioritized for conservation. 

In California, for example, a traditional wetland restoration technique might be to dynamite a levee to allow the tides back in, and let the wetland naturally re-vegetate. But now there is recognition that the former wetland areas are threatened by sea level rise. The emphasis has shifted to instead create wetland habitat on higher land where it would be more likely to persist into the future.

Watson recounts a gathering of scientists at a workshop in Rhode Island where researchers got together and talked about how they all saw the alarming changes happening to coastal areas. Discussions from this workshop led to a 2017 special issue of the journal Estuaries and Coasts dedicated to changes in coastal wetlands. She sees the same sense of collective understanding emerging among her peers in New Jersey and New York. 

This shift in how researchers, land stewards, policymakers, and regulators are approaching coastal wetland conservation represents the biggest trend that Watson sees in her research.  

“If you know it’s going to happen, you can help plan for it.” 

She shares this pragmatic outlook with her students, assuring them that it’s not necessary to feel overwhelmed.

“Sometimes students have a sense of hopelessness, but I don’t feel that way at all,” Watson said. “Political divides are temporary. Extreme events have really galvanized people to care, and the world is starting to take action.” 

To learn more about Beth Watson’s research, visit the Coastal Change Lab website.

By Kathryn Christopher, Manager of Science Communication and Outreach

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