Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, photo by David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

The State of Maryland is moving forward with critical climate change planning for coastal areas by figuring out how to protect lands into which soon-to-be-inundated wetlands and marshes can retreat. In response to the threat of sea level rise, these efforts are essential to maintaining the long-term ecological functions of storm surge buffering, carbon sequestration, water filtration, wildlife habitat, recreation and others that wetlands provide.

Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon Maryland/DC and the Lower Shore Land Trust have teamed up on a project focused on increasing the adaptive capacity of salt marshes and salt marsh obligate bird species in the Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

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The coastal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay provide a range of “ecosystem services” that are critical for improving the water quality by helping to remove nutrients, chemicals, and sediment from urban and agricultural runoff before reaching the open water of the Bay. In addition, coastal wetlands provide a first line of defense against rising sea levels and increased storm damage, flooding and erosion.

These wetlands are habitat for ducks, geese and shorebirds and are home to unique flora and fauna, including two birds, the Seaside Sparrow and the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which are identified as Maryland species of greatest conservation concern in the Maryland Wildlife Diversity Conservation Plan. These species evolved in this tidal environment and are found only in salt marsh habitats along the U.S. Atlantic Coasts.

Sea level rise is impacting low-lying coastal lands at twice the global average rate. Maryland Department of Natural Resources explains that the State has already seen a foot of relative sea level rise during the past 100 years, causing the disappearance of 13 barrier islands from the Chesapeake Bay. Within the Chesapeake Bay, additional sea level rise impacts are already evident, including wetland erosion and forest die-back as a result of saltwater intrusion.

Our work will focus on assisting the Lower Shore Land Trust to identify the highest priority marsh migration corridors so that they can protect these areas from future development. This project takes place within the context of Defender’s work with state wildlife agencies to update their wildlife action plans to consider the impacts of climate change, as well as Defender’s Living Lands program that enhances the capacity of land trusts and their partners in protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change.

For more information on sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, see the following online resources:

Maryland Commission on Climate Change  

Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change Phase I: Sea-level rise and coastal storms

National Wildlife Federation

U.S. Climate Change Science Program

North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

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Judy Boshoven is the Manager of the Living Lands program, an initiative aimed at connecting land trusts to financial and technical resources that will assist them in making strategic decisions about where to work to conserve high priority native species and habitats.

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