How Nature-based Solutions are Being Used to Fight Rising Seas

CEE Assistant Professor Julia Hopkins has been working to improve her designs for the Emerald Tutu project, a floating marshland made of interconnected mats of marsh grasses, which could serve as a defense system to protect against future floods caused by rising seas, while also purifying the surrounding waters.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Erick Trickey. Main Photo Courtesy of Julia Hopkins

Picture Boston Harbor, a few years from now. The East Boston Greenway, a leafy urban trail, no longer stops a block from the pier, but extends into the ocean. A floating semi-circular trail arcs across the water; cyclists buzz and pedestrians stroll along it.

Headshot of Julia Hopkins

Julia Hopkins, Northeastern civil and environmental engineering assistant professor, poses for a portrait outside Snell Engineering. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This is more than a buoyant park. The real innovation surrounds the path. On both sides, marsh grass splays out from hundreds of 6-foot-wide floating spheres, made of deadwood and coconut fiber. The bobbing green-brown globes are man-made, a new wetland riding atop the ocean.

This is the Emerald Tutu — a new coastal defense against rising seas, conceived by Julia Hopkins, a Northeastern University civil and environmental engineering professor, and fellow researchers. If it works, it could protect low-lying East Boston from future floods caused by climate change.

The Emerald Tutu project places Hopkins and her co-inventors at the avant-garde of a growing trend. All along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast, and on other shorelines around the world, nature-based solutions to rising seas, including “living shorelines,” have grown in popularity in the past decade.

Engineers are designing and building oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay, reinforcing barrier islands in Louisiana, restoring wetlands, and (in tropical climes like Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula) planting mangrove trees along shorelines — all to absorb waves and storm surges. They’re an attractive idea for large coastal cities and small shore towns alike, as they look for new ways to keep the ocean at bay.

If done right, nature-based solutions could also have other environmental benefits, such as purifying the waters. “If you’re going to do a nature-based solution, you might as well do one that improves the natural environment,” Hopkins says. “If you don’t care about improving your natural environment, you could just put up a wall. That will work. We know how walls work.”

The Emerald Tutu would go a step further than other nature-based coastal projects. It would be a living artificial shoreline, protecting the real one.

Scientist in a yellow kayak maneuvering a bundle into water

Photo Courtesy of Julia Hopkins

“We were trying to think about a flexible, natural solution that could be adaptable to a changing climate,” says Hopkins. “It’s for shorelines that otherwise don’t have many natural defenses.”

East Boston once had a marshy, soft shoreline, but the city built a “hard” one, where Logan Airport and Eastie’s harbor piers stand now.

“The tutu is a way of restoring a marsh without actually restoring the marsh,” Hopkins says. The floating mats, she says, would be linked together. “Both the density of an individual mat and the interplay between mats allows them to dissipate wave of energy as storms pass through,” she says. “They’re reducing the amount of energy that’s reaching the shoreline and, ideally, reaching inhabited areas.”

The new floating marsh could also help make Boston Harbor’s waters healthier.

“Floating wetlands tend to purify the surrounding waters,” says Hopkins. “If we put them off of the shoreline around Logan, could we maybe absorb some of that runoff from an active airport and help purify the harbor a bit?”

The idea behind nature-based coastal defenses like the Emerald Tutu is to offer a new alternative to sea walls—not a substitute for them, but a complement that’s part of a larger coastal defense system. That’s important as coastal cities and towns prepare for the rise in sea level and the more extreme storms that climate change is bringing.

Measure that storm

headshot of Jim Chen

Jim Chen, professor of marine and environmental sciences, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Down the hall from Hopkins’ office in Northeastern’s Snell Engineering Center, her colleague, Qin Jim Chen, also studies nature-based coastal defenses. He’s not an inventor—he’s a tester.

Chen has studied climate change for decades, and he knows the increased dangers it’s bringing. In 2004, when he was a professor at a university in Mobile, Alabama, he went to New Orleans to deliver a conference talk about climate change and a tropical storm that had flooded Mobile. But as he prepared to deliver the talk, a new storm developed: Hurricane Ivan was forecast to hit the Gulf Coast. The conference was canceled, and Chen joined the evacuation from New Orleans to Mobile—a drive that took 10 hours, rather than the usual two. Then the forecast changed—Ivan was now aiming for Mobile, not New Orleans—so Chen had to evacuate again, inland to Tuscaloosa.

That wasn’t Chen’s last struggle with a hurricane. A year later, Hurricane Katrina ripped a hole in the roof of his home.

Those destructive storms have helped motivate Chen. For years, he has worked with a network of scientists along the Gulf Coast, setting up sensors that measure tides, winds and waves during hurricanes. Chen and his collaborators often install the gauges just hours before storms hit.

Now, he’s also working on defenses against them. Chen is collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to measure the effectiveness of living shoreline projects along the East Coast.

“We know that wetlands can reduce a storm surge,” says Chen. But until recently, he says, scientists didn’t have the tools to evaluate when that was happening. Now, Chen’s modeling and analysis are producing new insights into when a rebuilt wetland or an oyster reef protects the shore behind it.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Julia Hopkins, Qin Jim Chen

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering