Our Beaches Are More Than Sun and Sand—They’re Nature’s Infrastructure

by Jessica Grannis

We’re in the dog days of summer now, and lots of folks are headed to the beach to make up for lost time since the pandemic began. 

My favorite part of traveling to the coast from DC is watching my surroundings slowly turn from urban areas to the forests of the coastal plain, to the Chesapeake Bay and the swaying grasses of its salt marshes, to the wooded swamps and calm waters of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and finally to the sandy barrier islands and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean.  

This transition from one ecosystem to another over just a short distance is what makes our coasts so fascinating and filled with diverse species. It’s also the hallmark of what our coasts provide for us—like multiple speed bumps, these ecosystems stack up against the fierce winds and waves of the ocean, breaking them down and protecting our coastal communities. Salt marshes can reduce wave heights by 70 percent or more, and every mile of wetlands can reduce storm surges by 1-2 feet. Every acre of saltmarsh, barrier island, and oyster reef is an essential part of what we call our “natural infrastructure.” 

Just like roads and bridges, our natural landscapes—like wetlands and floodplains—provide critical services to our communities, and they provide important habitats for birds. These coastal spaces act as our first lines of defense against the rising seas and more intense storms that climate change brings. They also improve water quality, serves as nurseries for the economically important fishing industries, and provide recreational opportunities for people.

Too often we see gray infrastructure along our coasts, from sea walls to rocky armored shorelines, that damage and degrade these important coastal ecosystems. By working with the environment, natural infrastructure presents an alternative that will grow and naturally adapt over time as the climate changes. That makes it a more cost-effective option for protecting some communities, with $7 or more in flood-reduction benefits for every dollar invested. 

That’s why
Audubon has a new suite of policy recommendations to make our communities and wildlife more resilient to climate change, by putting our wetlands, islands, and other ecosystems to work. Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration can invest in building climate-resilient communities and promoting natural infrastructure solutions.  

The needs of communities on the frontlines of climate change should be top priority. Increasing flood risks disproportionately affect lower-income communities, communities of color, Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, which are often located in low-lying flood-prone areas and near polluting facilities as a result of racist housing and other policies, like redlining.  

Any infrastructure package Pres. Biden proposes should direct $10 billion in much-needed funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support coastal restoration efforts that both build the resilience of communities to the impacts of climate change and also improve habitats for birds and other wildlife. Congress and the Administration can also promote natural infrastructure solutions through disaster recovery and hazard mitigation programs. By directing funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program, Congress can help lower-income communities enhance their resilience to increasingly extreme weather. Similarly, Congress should specifically promote natural infrastructure solutions when making investments to build community resilience before disasters strike through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program.  

Congress and the Administration should also bolster and expand the most important resilience law on the books—the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. Enacted in 1982 with wide bipartisan support over the years, this law saves taxpayer dollars and protects vitally important coastal habitats. It does so by limiting federal investments that would encourage development on environmentally sensitive and dynamic barrier islands, like Maryland’s famous Assateague Island and some of Delaware’s most beautiful beaches. Islands like this provide a refuge for birds like the Least Tern and Piping Plover to feed, rest, and raise their young, free from disturbance like human development.  

To help keep pace with rising sea levels, Audubon Mid-Atlantic is restoring salt marshes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at Deal Island Wildlife Management Area with sediments dredged from the Wicomico River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project will not only restore a natural flood buffer for historic and socially vulnerable villages on the Deal Island peninsula, but it will also improve habitat for the Saltmarsh Sparrow—a bird creeping dangerously close to extinction as their nests are getting flooded by increasing sea-level rise. 

Many coastal birds are in crisis, threatened not only by climate change, but also development, overfishing, and pollution. Seabird populations around the world have decreased by 70 percent since 1950. In North America alone, shorebird populations have decreased by 70 percent since 1973. Birds are telling us we must act to protect the places that they—and we—need.

So the next time you take a family trip to the beach, take note of the different landscapes you pass along the way. The marshes and the islands are each doing their part to fight climate change. Let’s do ours, by ensuring they’re still here to protect us for generations to come.


Jessica Grannis is the Interim Vice President for Coastal Conservation at the National Audubon Society. Jessica joined Audubon as the Coastal Resilience Director in 2019. Jessica previously served as the Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Program Director for 10 years, where she supervised staff and student research and analysis of federal, state, and local climate adaptation efforts.

Up Next

Navajo Nation Fights Uranium Contamination

Navajo Nation Fights Uranium Contamination

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer For decades, uranium mining has contaminated the Navajo Nation, causing higher cancer rates and water pollution. Even though the health risks and environmental harms of uranium mining are well-established, new operations continue to move forward. One local group, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) hasn’t found a […]

Continue Reading 398 words
Gavin Newsom Extends Drought State of Emergency in California

Gavin Newsom Extends Drought State of Emergency in California

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he would extend the drought emergency statewide and issued an executive order to have residents conserve water. As part of this effort, eight new counties were added to the state of emergency, and authorized the State Water Resources Control Board was authorized to […]

Continue Reading 249 words
Northern Canadian Indigenous Communities Face Water Contamination & Crisis

Northern Canadian Indigenous Communities Face Water Contamination & Crisis

By Elizabeth Love, ODP Contributing Writer Authorities in the Canadian Arctic territory Nunavut, announced a state of emergency this week due to a possible contamination event affecting the City of Iqaluit’s water supply.    Tests were performed after residents reported the smell of gasoline coming from their tap water,  but they came back clean. However, […]

Continue Reading 327 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.