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Science in the TNC-Dow Collaboration Analysis #2: Preserving or Restoring Coastal Habitats & Coastal Risk Mitigation

Walsh, Sheila 4/16/2012

What is the business challenge at the site that you are addressing?

Over the last three decades, financial losses from natural hazards, including coastal storms and flooding, have been increasing worldwide. In fact, 2011 had the largest such losses on record. These trends present real risks to businesses with coastal sites or that do business with such firms. But ecosystems such as coastal marshes — which play an important role in reducing waves and flooding — might offer businesses a chance to mitigate their natural hazard risks. Unfortunately, such habitats have been in serious decline in many places. So it’s important that conservation work with businesses to help them recognize the value of these habitats.
The Conservancy is addressing precisely this business challenge at Dow’s operations in Freeport, Texas. Dow’s Freeport facility lies along the Gulf of Mexico and is threatened by hurricanes and sea-level rise. However, the facility is also surrounded by extensive marshes, including two large National Wildlife Refuges that are some of the most important stop-over sites for migratory birds in North America. We expect that preserving or restoring these coastal habitats may make good business sense and benefit conservation. In order to test this hypothesis, we are developing methods for Dow and other businesses to evaluate green infrastructure solutions (i.e. protecting or restoring marshes, oyster reefs, etc.) alongside gray infrastructure solutions in their coastal natural hazard mitigation planning.
What role does the value of nature play in your analysis? How is this analysis using/advancing conservation science and tools?
Understanding the value of coastal habitats is critical to making better business decisions for coastal natural hazard mitigation planning. Without information on the degree to which marshes can reduce flooding and avoid property damage, businesses may miss more cost-effective mitigation solutions such as habitat protection. Or businesses may get the design of levee systems wrong because they don’t understand how healthy coastal habitats help levees do their job.
In recent years, our understanding of the ecology and economics of natural hazard mitigation services provided by healthy coastal habitats has increased dramatically. But the science still has a ways to go to link the ecology of processes like wave attenuation by marshes to the economics of property damages or business interruption avoided.
And we face an even bigger step before we can link the science of ecosystem service valuation to decision making. This analysis will significantly advance conservation science by linking all three of these pieces: ecology, economics, and decision-making.
How could this analysis change how Dow does business?
It’s already changing the way Dow is thinking about risk mitigation planning by broadening their view of the “solution space” to include the natural habitats around them. Currently, their modeling of potential damages from storms does not consider the role of habitats. This work will enable them to see how future damages from storms may be mitigated by protecting or restoring coastal habitats. We are aiming to formalize and embed this way of thinking into how Dow does business by enabling them to evaluate the benefits they get from coastal habitats.
We will also show Dow how habitat protection might benefit the local community as well as local biodiversity. Dow can use this information to make better decisions about how to site and design levees or other gray infrastructure and when it may be beneficial to invest in green infrastructure through protection or restoration of coastal habitats. For example, they might discover that it is more cost-effective to protect coastal marshes in front of their properties than to build levees, or that protection of these marshes will improve the performance of levees.
What are the potential conservation outcomes from this analysis?
New tools for businesses to evaluate investments in coastal habitat protection and restoration as part of risk mitigation planning. The application of these tools by Dow and other businesses could lead to widespread investment in coastal conservation. This new information could even lead to policy changes for flood insurance or zoning. Although there will certainly be times when conservation is not the best solution to protect from storms, without these tools conservation may not even be considered as an option.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered doing this work?
One of the biggest challenges in this work is the differences in the information that businesses use to do risk mitigation planning and the information we have on habitats. The types of models that businesses use to forecast potential damages from storms treat habitats like inanimate objects — not like living, changing, resilient features. Similarly, conservation science’s habitat models usually don’t translate to damages. But this challenge has turned into a great opportunity to marry these models to understand natural hazard mitigation as a function of healthy ecosystems. However, challenges still remain because ecosystems are complex and data on things like wave attenuation by marshes will inherently be noisier than data from analyzing the expected performance of a levee. We need to overcome these data challenges so that risk mitigation planners will not be averse to green infrastructure. If we don’t, green infrastructure solutions will at best be chosen as a complement to gray infrastructure, but not as a substitute.

By Sheila Walsh, senior scientist, Sustainability Science Team, The Nature Conservancy