Water birds congregate at Hog Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo: © Hal Brindley

When the Best Design Is NO Design, Except Nature’s

Hog Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo:   © Hal Brindley
Hog Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo:
© Hal Brindley

Breaking News:  Virginia Coast NOT Devastated By Storm!

Having traded in their “Storm Team” gear for casual attire, reporters cheerily announce that a major storm passed through the region, with wind and tidal surges causing no significant damage.

Think about it: Have you ever seen a news network trumpet a story like this? No interviews with dazed people left suddenly homeless. No shaky video footage of houses and businesses blowing apart or washing into the waves. No grim-faced government officials projecting astronomical monetary losses.

No, you aren’t likely to see this story on your favorite news channel. The story of coastal communities protected thanks to nature’s design simply doesn’t make for exciting television.   

The Eastern Shore of Virginia may be less than thrilling for a storm-team reporter, but as a marine scientist, I have found my nirvana. I was drawn here, for work and play, because of its unspoiled natural design. Nature’s design also happens to enable our communities to survive storm after storm on this finger of land narrowly dividing the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

Water birds congregate at Hog Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo:   © Hal Brindley
Water birds congregate at Hog Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo:
© Hal Brindley

We owe our resiliency largely to far-sighted decisions made some 50 years ago to NOT design and build, especially on our barrier islands. Rather, The Nature Conservancy created the Virginia Coast Reserve to protect and manage the last great wilderness on the East Coast.

In addition to wild barrier islands, the Virginia Coast Reserve’s “design features” include salt marshes, tidal mudflats, shallow bays and upland forests. In all, some 45,000 protected acres here still function as nature intended, providing valuable habitat and guarding our peninsula against storms and rising water levels.

The coastlines to the north and south of us stand in stark contrast, lined with pavement, boardwalks and high-rise condominiums.

Meanwhile, the sands on our barrier islands shift freely with every tide, season and year. The islands themselves move from north to south and march slowly and steadily westward.

The islands’ mere presence, along with their orientation, allows them to bear the brunt of coastal storms. Storm energy that escapes to cross the coastal bays will encounter our second line of defense marshalled along the seaside of our mainland: vast expanses of salt marsh.

With these natural defenses dissipating the majority of energy generated by storms, our people have been spared much of the property destruction and the costly clean-up and rebuilding efforts that more densely developed coastal communities have suffered.

Our globally important concentrations of birds and other wildlife have been spared from losing their critical habitat as well. Piping plovers, American oystercatchers and black skimmers thrive along our beaches.

In the adjacent bays and lagoons, our high water quality is virtually unparalleled. These waters, flowing between the barrier islands and the peninsula, also support a living laboratory for restoration.

Oyster reefs at Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo:   © Mark Godfrey/TNC
Oyster reefs at Virginia Coast Reserve. Photo:
© Mark Godfrey/TNC

Newly restored oyster reefs and underwater grasses, which virtually disappeared from the system in the 1930s, are succeeding at a scale unimagined in less-protected areas. Restoring these habitats further enhances water quality, in turn spawning new economic opportunities, most notably clam aquaculture and eco-tourism.

The early 1930s also saw the demise of the last town on the islands that today are uninhabited and part of the Virginia Coast Reserve. Recognizing the futility of fighting against natural forces, the islanders packed their belongings and even their houses, church and other buildings onto barges and moved to the more protected mainland.

As coastal communities around the world face increasingly more intense and frequent storms, we have much to learn from the experience of those islanders and from nature’s design.

Photo:   © Hal Brindley
Photo: © Hal Brindley

Jill Bieri is the Director of the Virginia Coast Reserve


Opinions expressed on Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.



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