NCEAS Product 25311

van Wesenbeeck, Bregje; de Boer, Wiebe; Narayan, Siddharth; van der Star, Wouter R.L.; de Vries, Mindert B. 2016. Coastal and riverine ecosystems as adaptive flood defenses under a changing climate. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. (Abstract) (Online version)


Adaptation planning for flood risk forms a significant part of global climate change response. Engineering responses to higher water levels can be prohibitively costly. Several recent studies emphasize the potential role of ecosystems in flood protection as adaptive risk reduction measures while also contributing to carbon fixation. Here, we use a conceptual model study to illustrate the built-in adaptive capability of ecosystems to reduce a wide range of wave heights, occurring at different water levels, to a narrower range. Our model shows that wave height of waves running through a forested section is independent of initial height or of water level. Although the underlying phenomenon of non-linear wave attenuation within coastal vegetation is well studied, implications of reducing variability in wave heights for design of ecosystem and levee combinations have not yet been properly outlined. Narrowing the range of wave heights by a vegetation field generates an adaptive levee that is robust to a whole range of external conditions rather than only to a maximum wave height. This feature can substantially reduce costs for retrofitting of levees under changing future wave climates. Thereby, in wave prone areas, inclusion of ecosystems into flood defense schemes constitutes an adaptive and safe alternative to only hard engineered flood risk measures.