Can nature protect us?

By Daimen Hardie, Executive Director, Posted on November 24, 2014

How can we protect nature? This is a longstanding question in the conservation sector, maybe even the question of conservation. But I’d like to see it reversed. How can nature protect us? Turning this traditional line of thinking around offers a new perspective on our relationship with the natural world, and reveals some hope when facing the climate crisis.

Consider the world’s low-lying coastal regions such as Pemba Island, Tanzania and our hometown of Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. These areas are now at high risk of sea level rise and severe storm surges linked to a changing climate. How do we protect threatened coastal communities from an encroaching ocean? It’s a daunting question, but as it turns out, natural systems already hold many of the answers.

Coral reefs, mangrove forests, and salt marsh ecosystems are nature’s defences against storm surges. Study shows that coral reefs reduce more than 85% of wave energy and mangrove forests reduce water level surges by up to half a meter for every kilometre of their width.  As for salt marshes, ongoing research at the University of Cambridge recently revealed that over a distance of 40 meters salt marsh reduced the height of large waves by 18%.

Engineering and constructing artificial barriers to provide the same level of protection as coral reefs, mangroves, and salt marshes is possible, but requires vast amounts of capital and infrastructure. And unlike artificial infrastructure, which begins to degrade the moment it is constructed and requires continued investment and upkeep for its entire service life, natural infrastructure is self-maintaining and naturally accrues greater and greater value over time.

Natural infrastructure is self-maintaining and naturally accrues greater and greater value over time.

In those coastal communities fortunate to have such intact natural infrastructure, nature is already providing critical protection against climate change. In areas where these ecosystems have been destroyed or heavily degraded, restoring the natural ecology may be the best line of defence going forward.

From the ozone layer to the water cycle, natural systems have always protected us. In a changing climate, natural systems now provide hope for our successful adaptation. Can nature protect us? It’s trying—we’ve just got to start working with it.