Conserving Blackwater

Journey 2 focuses on natural science, specifically the ecology and geology of the Chesapeake Bay. My Journey 2 photo journal aims to depict how communities are adapting to climate change, specifically sea level rise. Reading the Blackwater 2100 conservation plan was therefore incredibly informative. It outlined the ways that Blackwater is adapting to build and protect wetlands through adaptive management, securing areas for marsh migration, and transitioning uplands into marsh. Matt Whitbeck, the conservation biologist we met with at the Blackwater Visitor Center, showed us different maps of the refuge that depicted the loss of wetlands over the past 50 years. Thousands of acres of marshlands have transitioned into open waters, rendering them inhabitable for the species that rely on marsh grass habitat for survival. The reason for this loss of wetlands can be attributed to several factors. Some examples of this are nutria (an invasive species), sea level rise, and land subsidence. In Prof. Hardesty’s class, we discussed land subsidence as the reason why the rate of sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay is twice the global average. Mr. Whitbeck’s presentation taught me a lot about the impacts of nutria. Though rather similar in appearance to muskrats, a native species, nutria differ significantly from muskrats in how they feed. While muskrats eat blades of marsh grass, nutria pull the marsh grasses they consume out by the roots. Luckily for the refuge, they received a significant sum of money from a number of organizations, as well as the government, and were able to essentially eradicate nutria from the refuge.

With the problem of nutria out of the way, the big issues remaining were sea level rise and land subsidence. With these challenges in mind, four adaptation strategies were created: 1. Facilitate wetland migration, 2. Encourage persistence of existing wetlands, 3. Enhance quality of shallow water habitat, and 4. Restore wetlands where possible (Whitbeck). Mr. Whitbeck seemed to feel confident in the refuge’s ability to implement these strategies and rehabilitate wetland, but I couldn’t help feeling that the solution was temporary. Because of land subsidence, a natural occurrence that cannot be slowed, sea level will rise regardless of human activities. Furthermore, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, scientists say we would still experience climate change for many decades to come. Mr. Whitbeck openly admitted that the living shoreline and other adaptive measures being taken on Martin Wildlife Refuge can only postpone its inevitable transformation into open waters. On whether or not the investment in Blackwater is worthwhile, he seemed more confident that the cost would be worth the benefits. When we consider the ecosystem services that wetlands provide, the decision to preserve and restore them makes a lot of sense. I don’t necessarily oppose the efforts, but for the first time I am really beginning to question when it makes sense to invest in conservation and when the benefits are not worth the costs.

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