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Can Urban Wetlands Help Make LA More Resilient to Climate Change?


ENVIRONMENT IN CRISIS - The jury is no longer out; climate change is a major threat.  Although scientists, policy makers, and the general public alike agree that climate change is a certainty, there are remaining points of debate regarding the timing and severity of the effects, as well as possible solutions, especially in relation to our vulnerable coastal communities and habitats.  As we shift our way of thinking about climate change from vague potential scenarios to a very real set of events that are both assured and immediate, it is vital that we incorporate all new data and modeling projects into planning efforts.  

The third annual “Climate Change in Urban Estuaries Symposium” was a noteworthy event held on March 25th at Loyola Marymount University with over 150 members of the public, scientists, agency representatives, and students in attendance.  The symposium highlighted important research and restoration efforts relating to climate change in wetland projects throughout California.  

 This event, co-sponsored by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and the Center for Urban Resilience at Loyola Marymount University, created an opportunity for the public to hear and participate in presentations by wetland scientists from throughout California who reported on the results of their data relating to the effects of climate change on coastal wetland systems.  

Presentation topics ranged from sea level rise modeling to thermal stress on invertebrate communities to sedimentation, marsh migration, and threats or stress from invading plant species.  At the end of the day, a student poster session full of aspiring scientists provided an excellent opportunity for undergraduate and master’s students to discuss their recent wetland research with symposium attendees. 

Faced with some of the global climate change effects such as sea level rise, temperature increases, increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme events and freshwater pulses, it seems as though the task of finding solutions to increase the resiliency of our coastal habitats and communities to combat climate change is incredibly daunting.  However, the take-away message from the symposium left us with a feeling of hope; yes, our coastal estuaries are vulnerable to climate change, but they can also be evaluated and considered as part of the solution.  

One of the most significant climate change effects to coastal regions in southern California is sea level rise (SLR), which was the topic or an underlying theme during most of the scientific presentations.  While specific SLR predictions vary based on geographic location and different models used in presented studies, experts agree that a half meter rise in the Los Angeles area is predicted by 2050, with even more dramatic increases in the following decades.  These scenarios are important to assess which habitats and areas will be the most vulnerable in order to develop solutions.  

Wetlands are now being recognized even more in the public eye for their ability to combat climate change in a multi-faceted way.  Among many other services, they offer:


  • Slowing and abatement of flood waters;
  • Erosion control;
  • Increased floodplain capacity in healthy coastal wetland systems; and
  • A high degree of carbon sequestration, once the soils have had time to accumulate plant material.


Notably, we can also evaluate the potential of wetland restoration projects to incorporate planning for SLR.  One such example is the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve Restoration Project, which was evaluated based on a variety of future scenarios, including varying degrees of precipitation and SLR. 


While two design alternatives that were assessed showed habitat shifts over time, both included an increased floodplain capacity and the ability to retain coastal wetland habitats over time, something that may not be able to happen with the current flood control concrete levees in place.  Additional studies are warranted to develop these ideas further, including the assessment of accretion rates.  The ability to design a restored wetland that is resilient to climate change is both possible and vital to our coastal systems.


Global climate change is an intimidating issue, so how do we, as environmentally-minded citizens, respond?  Individually, we can make ever-increasing strides to reduce our own carbon footprint and our reliance on fossil fuels, while at the same time continuing to reduce our waste and energy use. 


But on a larger scale, we can support restoration projects that will bring back a piece of the wetland habitats of southern California (which have suffered a dramatic 90% loss over the past several centuries), and will increase protection for our coastlines and coastal developments which have become destinations for the rest of the world.  Environmentally, economically, socially, it just makes sense, and turns a sense of hope into tangible and positive forward movement for all those who care about wetlands and combating climate change.


(Karina Johnston is the Director of Watershed Programs for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation.  As the leader of the scientific monitoring program for the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and the coordinator of regional wetland monitoring efforts, Karina has extensive experience developing, implementing, and coordinating scientific monitoring programs. She has helped to develop numerous scientific research programs and experiments, including assisting in three Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) programs. She has led field research teams in wetland, beach, intertidal, and subtidal habitats throughout southern California and Australia.)






Vol 11 Issue 28

Pub: Apr 5, 2013



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