January 25, 2016|By Erik Meyers| Water

World leaders representing more than 190 countries recently gathered outside Paris, France to adopt collective measures to address climate change. For me, as the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, it was “déjà vu all over again.” I was present in Rio for the 1992 Global Forum, which ran in parallel with the original Earth Summit of world leaders. This foundational United Nations Conference on Environment and Development agreement committed the nations of the world to address the build-up of carbon dioxide and other climate changing elements in the Earth’s atmosphere. It was a time of hope and optimism for climate action. Now, nearly a quarter century later, the world’s community of nations again gathered, again pledging more united and serious steps to slow the increase in atmospheric carbon.

That’s good news. But for Maryland’s Dorchester County and other areas on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore, like Smith Island and Crisfield, the world’s commitment to future action will come too late to slow the inevitable rise of the Bay’s waters. Climate mitigation—that is, taking action to reduce the amount of new carbon dioxide produced from burning fuels such as oil and coal and slowing or halting forest losses—is absolutely necessary, but will also come absolutely too late to avoid many severe impacts from the effects of rising global temperatures already baked into global climate trends.

In Dorchester County, today’s visitor experiences the vastness of a salt marsh ecosystem stretching far across the horizon toward distant Chesapeake Bay waters. More than 70,000 grassy acres within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, a state-owned preserve, make the marsh seem endless…and timeless. 

ErikMeyers Blog1Looking out over the vast salt marsh at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

Yet the days of this marsh are numbered. The best available science shows levels in the Chesapeake rising at approximately twice the global rate. While the reasons are complicated, the science is virtually unanimous in pointing to the build-up of atmospheric carbon and resulting warmer global temperatures as the dominant factor in today’s accelerating rate of sea level rise. Science-based projections point to a future where, without intervention, much of present-day Dorchester will be under the Bay. During 2013, the Maryland Climate Commission convened its science and technical group to review earlier projections for relative sea level rise over the coming century. Taking into account multiple factors that influence relative sea level, their best estimate for the year 2100 is a 3.7 feet rise on the Bay’s Eastern Shore. In fact, these scientists concluded that, even adopting the most conservative posture on trend data, the rise would be over 2 feet. 

ErikMeyers Blog2Ordinary high tides covering part of Maple Dam Road within the Blackwater refuge. Photo by Erik Meyers.

Fortunately, The Conservation Fund has been quietly working with regional partners for a decade to help this uniquely beautiful and valuable place adapt more effectively to the rising tides. The region is home to priceless wildlife, including birds like the black rail and seaside and salt marsh sparrows found only in the salt marsh. Equally iconic are the Eastern Shore’s cultural history and human residents, such as the farmers who raise grains and poultry to feed the Mid-Atlantic’s cities, and the watermen (and women) who harvest Chesapeake blue crabs, oysters and finfish. Our focus has been on helping both wildlife and people adapt to the relentless change of rising waters. 

ErikMeyers Blog3Farm Creek Marsh, a Chesapeake Audubon property, is one site where we are conducting adaptation work. Photo by Erik Meyers.

Our work gets deep into the reality of marsh muck, briny and fresh tidal waters, and soil of farm fields and forests with implemented adaptation projects. Directed by the best available science, we’ve identified and are following prudent strategies that will slow the rate of marsh loss, help the transition of upland forests and fields into future marsh, keep farmers earning a living from the land longer, and acquire conservation interests in key corridors destined to become the region’s future salt marsh. Come another quarter century (or two or three…) our present day actions will enable human and wildlife species on the future Eastern Shore to continue to reap the benefits of the salt marsh. 

ErikMeyers Blog4Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

Like the world leaders in Paris, we recognize no single institution alone can accomplish this work . Enlisting many partners is critical to the success of making the Chesapeake more resilient to the effects of climate change. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources are have demonstrated great courage in asking hard questions, looking for better answers and innovating new policies and practices. They and others, such as Audubon Maryland-DC, have been the Fund’s partners every step of the way. Other institutions—the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Town Creek Foundation, NOAA, and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund—have backed these pioneering steps with funding and other support. It does take a village.

So we paused, but only for a moment, to applaud the world leaders in Paris for backing the new global climate convention before turning back to the vital work of making Maryland’s Dorchester County more resilient in the face of our changing global climate. Such efforts come not a moment too soon.