Storms, floods, heat waves. Severe weather and the resulting damages are quickly becoming a new normal. But scientists have discovered a secret ally in the fight to protect the planet and its inhabitants: Nature itself.
It’s known as “green infrastructure,” and it’s hidden in plain sight: Wetlands, forests, floodplains and other natural systems provide “ecosystem services” that help filter water, reduce heat and even control flooding in vulnerable areas. One example: Governors Island, which lies in New York Harbor, recently underwent a multiyear landscaping project that added natural buffers—trees, terracing and roughly 40 acres of elevated parkland—to protect the historic island from floods.
Here are more ways that nature is able to police the planet—and a few ideas for how you can help.
Clean Drinking Water
New York City uses 1.1 billion gallons of clean water a day. Much of it flows from the nearby Catskill Mountains—but by the early 1990s, the quality was jeopardized by farm runoff. Rather than spend billions of dollars on new filtration plants, the city decided to help protect the watershed by acquiring and managing land around reservoirs and lakes. Thanks to the natural filtration of the watershed land itself, the water supply remains clean enough not to require expensive, mechanical filtering plants.
How to cope with rising temperatures? Much of the planet comes with a canopy: trees, aka nature’s air conditioners. The temperature under a shade tree can be 25°F to 30°F lower than it is on a sunny pavement, says Cindy Blain, executive director of the education and advocacy group California ReLeaf. “Trees are one of the most cost-effective ways to deal with climate change and reduce energy costs, heat-related illnesses and deaths,” she says.
Meanwhile, planting and maintaining trees can pay for itself. For instance, there are urban forestation programs in Fort Collins, Colo.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Bismarck, N.D.; Berkeley, Calif.; and Glendale, Ariz. As a result, these cities have found that program benefits range from lower energy use to less pavement maintenance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Stronger Than The Storms
Preserving coastlines and wetlands can mitigate storm damage. In Hurricane Sandy in 2012, “coastal communities that still had their dunes and wetlands intact experienced less damage than communities that had built right up to the shore,” notes Aimee Delach, senior policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife.
For example, years before the storm, the town of Long Beach, N.Y., voted against paying $7 million to partake in a federal project to restore sand dunes along its Atlantic shore. That decision proved costly: The city suffered an estimated $200 million in property and infrastructure damage from Sandy, while neighboring towns that had approved construction of dunes (including Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach) were spared significant losses. Similarly, in New Jersey’s hard-hit Ocean County, conserving salt marshes could help lessen future flood losses there by more than 20 percent a year on average, according to a study by The Nature Conservancy. “Wetlands act like sponges that hold water and prevent it from rushing downstream to harm communities,” Delach says.
What You Can Do
- Honor the H20. When it comes to clean drinking water, conservation is key. Learn how to use water wisely at Change The Course.
- Cultivate the canopy. The National Arbor Day Foundation’s tree-planting programs can help your area cool down, and even reduce your carbon footprint.
- Watch the wetlands. Volunteer with the EPA’s monitoring program to protect the lands that can protect you.
Would you know how to file a claim following a severe weather event? Find out at GEICO’s Catastrophe Claim Center.
Want more ways help the planet? Here’s how to make every day Earth Day.
By Shira Boss
Photo illustration by Pixteur