Stalking 2: Responsible Adaptation to Rising Sea Level

During Journey 2, I began to apply ethical consideration to the adaptive measures the different people and organizations we met with were enacting in response to sea level rise. Each site we visited (Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Smith Island, the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague, and Ocean City) faces threats associated with rising sea levels, and each location has a different adaptation strategy in place to try to address it. Thinking about Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” I started to wonder if we have a responsibility as citizens of the land-community to protect the environment from sea level rise, or if intervening in this largely natural phenomenon is just another example of humans trying to preserve the imagined “wilderness” that Cronon warns of?

At Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, there are a number of adaptation strategies outlined in their conservation plan, Blackwater 2100. According to the document, scientists predict 1.4 feet of sea level rise in BNWR by 2050 (Curson, Whitbeck, Meyers, 2013). In order to address the extensive loss of wetland habitat that occurs as water levels rise and marshes transition into open waters, Blackwater plans to construct a living shoreline to slow erosion, artificially enhance sediment, and increase surface elevation. A living shoreline has already been built on Martin National Wildlife Refuge, (MNWR) primarily installed to protect critical migratory bird habitat. We spoke to Matt Whitbeck, a conservation biologist at Blackwater, about both the adaptation efforts at Blackwater and Martin Refuge. He candidly stated that the living shoreline at MNWR is a several million-dollar investment that will only postpone the refuge’s inundation by a few decades. This decision struck me as ethically questionable—why invest in preserving and artificially recreating a habitat for a few species of birds? Just as Poplar Island became completely submerged years ago, the same fate awaits Martin Refuge.

Adaptation in Ocean City centers on preserving their economy over ecology. What has occurred in Ocean City directly violates Also Leopold’s land ethic, as Fenwick Island was essentially bulldozed to erect a boardwalk and the city, and a jetty on the south side of the island was built to open up the inlet. The adaptive measures being taken now further interfere with nature, since they involve artificially replenishing the beaches with sand in order to preserve the economy of Ocean City. Meanwhile, Assateague Island erodes at an alarming rate, due to a combination of natural factors, sea level rise, and the fact that Ocean City’s jetty inhibits the longshore sediment transport that naturally replenishes sand on the island. This demands employing adaptive measures that transport sand from offshore shoals to Assateague’s beaches in order to prevent them from eroding away entirely.

The efforts on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge most successfully strike a balance between human and environmental needs, and employ adaptive measures that enable the two to coexist. On Assateague, the water levels are managed artificially to provide better habitat for migratory birds and sustain a healthy ecosystem. The economy of Chincoteague benefits because tourists are drawn to the birding opportunities and “pristine” habitat. This system is not without its problems, however. I look back at the first chapter of Bay Country, in which Horton poses the question of “what is natural, what is right?” He specifically speaks to the management of the Chincoteague Refuge, saying, “The dunes have been bulldozed up and stabilized with plantings of beach grass…” (Horton 1) and goes on to list all the adaptations humans have enacted on the refuge to “protect” it.

The ethical argument behind adapting to sea level rise is that if humans caused it, then it is our responsibility to mitigate the damage. But as Horton discusses in Bay Country, an artificially maintained environment is not truly natural. And as Cronon argues in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” the obsession with preserving wilderness is a relatively recent and problematic societal goal. Therefore the most persuasive argument I see for taking adaptive measures is to maintain the ecosystem services that wetlands provide to humans, and to protect the cultures of places such as Smith Island. We should not be focused on protecting individual bird species, because though they may be beautiful, those millions of dollars could be invested in solutions that offer long-term societal benefits.


Lerner, J.A., Curson, D.R., Whitbeck, M. and Meyers, E.J., Blackwater 2100: A strategy for salt marsh persistence in an era of climate change, 2013, The Conservation Fund (Arlington, VA) and Audubon MD-DC (Baltimore, MD).

Horton, T. (1987). Bay Country. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

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