Are wetlands at risk as seas rise? Long-term data is key

Randall Parkinson

Coastal geologist Randall Parkinson

Are wetlands keeping pace with sea level rise? Some researchers believe they are not, creating concern for coastal areas that rely on wetlands for fresh drinking water and protection from storms and flooding.

A team from FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center is searching for key answers to how communities in the coastal Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and the Caribbean will fare as oceans rise more quickly.

Coastal geologist Randall Parkinson suggests the real answers are buried deep underground. Using soil samples that contain plant material – some thousands of years old – he says researchers can get a true picture of how wetlands have adapted to sea level rise over decades even millennia.

Today there is debate among the scientific community on whether wetlands are indeed vulnerable to sea level rise. At least one study has suggested that in the short term, wetlands like marshes and swamps aren’t in immediate danger because they grow fast enough to account for the rise in sea level. Parkinson, however, said short-term models don’t account for natural processes that compact soil, leaves and other organic matter.

“The past is the key to the future,” Parkinson said. “The implications are enormous if you live on the mainland and you have wetlands as buffers for hurricanes.”

Should sea levels rise faster than the current rate of 3.3 millimeters per year and wetlands become overwhelmed, coastal communities could find themselves underwater, dealing with salt water intrusion into their drinking water aquifers, or facing more direct blows from storms.

If we intend to stave off those effects, more research is needed, Parkinson said.

“For now, we need to ensure we have healthy wetlands. This will help mitigate the effects of sea level rise and give us a bit more time to plan,” he said.

The Sea Level Solutions Center is a hub for sea level rise research, education, communication and outreach. It’s housed in FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment, which is dedicated to addressing global water and environmental issues.