The National Estuarine Research Reserve System protects 29 reserves, covering more than 1.3 million acres in 23 states and Puerto Rico, for the purposes of long-term research, environmental monitoring, education, and stewardship. Each reserve represents a partnership between NOAA and a coastal state agency, university, or non-profit organization. They work with local communities and regional groups to address natural resource management issues, including the impacts of sea level rise.
All of these state reserves monitor key indicators of estuarine function using the consistent, vetted protocols of their System-Wide Monitoring Program, which was designed to detect short-term variation and long-term trends in estuarine habitats, looking at water quality, weather, biological communities, and habitat. In 2011, the reserves launched a climate change initiative to better understand climate change-driven impacts on estuaries and coastal communities by tying together accurate land elevations and water level measurements with associated changes in coastal ecosystems. A key strategy of this initiative was to establish the reserves as a network of sentinel sites to monitor the impact of local sea level and inundation change on vegetated habitats. These are observations are critical for decision makers, especially in low elevation coastal ecosystems.
A limiting factor in the plan was that the reserves’ state and university partners lacked the technical and scientific skills, knowledge, equipment, and resources to fully implement the protocols and derive the information products. The nominated team of Galen Scott, Philippe Hensel, Kevin Jordan (National Geodetic Survey or NGS), and Artara Johnson (Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services or CO-OPS) provided the skills and commitment needed to address this issue. They worked with each reserve to design an implementation strategy based on each site’s geography, tidal regime, and observational infrastructure, and provided the needed training and technical assistance to raise the capacity of the reserve staff and partners. Because of their efforts and transferred knowledge, reserve staff are now able to apply the concepts of geodesy, oceanography, and vertical reference systems for this network.
Implementing the vertical reference system in marshes required the use of NGS and CO-OPS surveying and water level measurement technology, and a modification of protocols associated with measuring accretion and subsidence. The team provided instruction regarding a refined survey method for use in difficult environments, offered technical assistance to each reserve, and developed web-based and in-person training specifically for state partners.
In evaluations from the training surveys given over the past two years, participants rated the NGS and CO-OPS effort as being highly effective, noting that the reserves and their partners developed the competence needed to execute the sentinel site network. Nearly all of the reserves experiencing sea level rise impacts are applying these protocols, which allows each site to gather the data and present their findings at scales relevant to local, regional, and national decision-makers.
The impact of this knowledge transfer can be seen in the implementation of this monitoring network, in published literature, and through adoption by other partners. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, are using the protocol to provide regional analysis of marsh vulnerability to sea level rise, across their system of parks and reserves.
As an example, in 2014, the sentinel site monitoring at the Narragansett Bay Reserve served as a bellwether to the potential loss of Spartina patens to sea level rise within a 5-10 year period. This triggered a bay-wide mapping effort to identify vulnerable Spartina patens habitats and to guide the development and implementation of adaptation strategies to minimize loss. In 2016, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System published the Marsh Resilience to Sea Level Rise (MARS) index, which uses sentinel site data to compare the sensitivity of marshes to sea level rise. State resource managers use this index to inform vulnerability assessments of marsh ecosystems.
The research reserve sentinel sites are a foundational component of NOAA’s Sentinel Site Program, which leverages regional partnerships to implement sentinel site data. Information from these efforts is used by resource managers making decisions about how to best protect the natural and built environment from sea level rise. Through the work of this team, the National Geodetic Survey and the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services have become trusted agents for the reserve system, and have been singularly responsible for putting the reserves on the map as the first sentinel site ecological network, both nationally and internationally.