Ecosystems serve up a healthy portion of prevention

A camel in the East Hammar Marsh near Basra, Iraq. Photo by Brian Helmuth.

A few months ago incoming fac­ulty member Brian Hel­muth saw a camel on the side of a river in the East Hammar Marsh in Basra, Iraq. “At first I thought, ‘oh yeah you know that’s cool,’” he recalled. “And then I real­ized, yeah — camels don’t belong in marshes.”

The Hammar Marsh, seated at the inter­sec­tion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is thought to have been the loca­tion of the Garden of Eden — that zenith of green spaces, that pic­ture of fer­tility. Today, Hel­muth told me, the marsh and nearby Basra are ground zero for water inse­cu­rity. The marshes around which the area’s entire cul­ture was built have receded by 90 per­cent. The rivers are drying up. Salt sed­i­ment is creeping its way closer and closer to the city, which is about 100 km from shore.

Why is all this hap­pening, you ask? I had the same question.

At the end of the first gulf war, Hel­muth told me, Saddam Hus­sein had the world’s largest canals built under the guise of road-​​making. Cou­pled with cli­mate change and mas­sive dams in Syria and Turkey, this “devel­op­ment” has nearly dec­i­mated the area, which is mainly inhab­ited by Shia Muslims.

When Hel­muth vis­ited, it hadn’t rained in six months.

Whether we like it or not, our actions have an impact on the land and its ability to sup­port life. Whether we like it or not, cli­mate change is happening…quickly. So we’d better start preparing, said Helmuth.

Yes­terday marked the one month anniver­sary of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. The storm had dev­as­tating impacts around the world. It caused the first weather-​​related close of the NY stock exchange since 1985, left mil­lions without power for sev­eral days, and ini­ti­ated a gaso­line rationing pro­gram that is just now coming to an end.

Weather fore­casting is nothing new — we can pre­dict the path of a hur­ri­cane with pretty good accu­racy these days. But even with advanced warning, no amount of last minute prepa­ra­tions could have saved New York from the destruc­tion it expe­ri­enced. Our built envi­ron­ment, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, is simply not very good at dealing with cli­mate change impacts.

From reduced rain­fall in the marshes of Basra to dev­as­tating hur­ri­canes in the north­eastern US, cli­mate change is demanding a new approach to the way we interact with the land.

The unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally dry con­di­tions have caused a wave of fires in the Basra area. Photo by Brian Helmuth.

Hel­muth, a marine biol­o­gist who uses cli­mate change models to pre­dict areas of vul­ner­a­bility in order to develop appro­priate prepar­a­tive actions, said that one pro­posed solu­tion in Basra has been to plant man­grove trees to sta­bi­lize sed­i­ments along the Per­sian Gulf. These trees have com­plex root sys­tems that pro­vide struc­ture for ecosystem growth as well as fil­tering capa­bil­i­ties, which could help manage the sed­i­ment run-​​off men­tioned ear­lier. This kind of devel­op­ment stands in direct relief to the stan­dard approach of building con­crete walls wher­ever we see water prob­lems. Man­groves would actu­ally help replenish some of the fer­tility that has been lost from the area.

Hel­muth will join the Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ences fac­ulty in Jan­uary and is spear­heading the new Sus­tain­ability Sci­ence and Policy Ini­tia­tive, a joint pro­gram of the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. He is putting together an inter­na­tional net­work of marine labs to pool resources on studying the impacts of cli­mate change on coastal com­mu­ni­ties (this is what brought him to Iraq).

One really inter­esting ques­tion and one that hasn’t been addressed,” he said, “is when can we build hard struc­tures to make us safe from things like Sandy versus when do we pre­serve and enhance nat­ural ecosys­tems as a way of making our­selves resilient?”

The man­groves in Basra are a good example of the latter. Ecosys­tems can pro­vide us with a variety of ser­vices, he said. Work taking place in Jon Grabowski’s lab, for instance, looks at how oyster reefs can be used to pro­vide struc­ture as a pro­tec­tion against ero­sion while also fil­tering pol­lu­tants out of seawater.

But in places like New York, we might be too far gone, said Hel­muth. Con­crete struc­tures are pretty much all that’s left in many of our coastal cities, so the solu­tion there may not be so simple as building oyster beds or planting man­grove trees. Instead, he said, we need to think of ways to dis­perse impacts when they happen.

One of the biggest issues after Sandy was the power out­ages. Flooding caused fires which caused trans­formers to blow up. Since the power grid in New York — as in most places — is totally cen­tral­ized, a single trans­former powers vast reaches of the island. When one goes, thou­sands of people are instantly affected. A so-​​called “smart grid,” with decen­tral­ized con­trol, would be a much more resilient approach, he said.

As always, the key point here is for policy makers and sci­en­tists to be on the same page. Helmuth’s new role at the uni­ver­sity is intended to facil­i­tate cross-​​talk between those two groups. The Sus­tain­ability Sci­ence and Policy Ini­tia­tive is part of a larger ini­tia­tive of the Col­lege of Sci­ence on urban coastal sustainability.