Sea level rise will undoubtedly be one of our greatest challenges in the 21st century as heat expands water and our ice sheets and glaciers continue to melt. On developed beaches, it is easy to see the effects of sea level rise on developed coastlines through destructive erosion claiming buildings and displacing families. In salt marshes, the changes caused by sea-level rise are subtle but still serious. Many animals whose life cycles are tied to the salt marshes are at risk, like the salt marsh sparrow that has decreased by 82% since 1998 due to habitat loss and nest loss from increased flooding. This summer, I was an intern with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Directorate Fellowship Program (DFP) learning about the dynamics of salt marshes and what we are doing to save them through restoration ecology.
Salt marshes form on low energy coasts, typically in sheltered areas where fine sediments can accumulate, such as the landward sides of barrier islands, bays, estuaries, deltas, and rivers. As the barrier between open land and water, salt marshes protect shorelines from erosion and absorb energy from storm surges. Under normal conditions, marsh grasses are nourished by the tides, building up sediment to keep up with the natural sea level. However, rapid sea-level rise and larger, more frequent storm surges have interrupted this process of vertical accumulation creating elevation deficits where salt marshes are lost to open water, compromising the livelihood of the people and wildlife that rely on this vulnerable ecosystem.
The original plan was for me to move to Massachusetts for the summer with the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and participate in their salt restoration projects while implementing my own, however, due to Covid-19, I was working from home for the entire summer. I am grateful for the people I met and the experiences I gained, but my fieldwork dreams were crushed and I missed out on my summer tan.
My work this summer was to populate the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture project inventory on ArcGIS Online (AGOL) with past, present, and future salt marsh conservation efforts along the Atlantic Coast to serve as a central hub of information to be used by conservation partners and the general public. The project inventory included the project description, objective, management strategies, contact information, timeline, and other useful information that could be used to identify conservation hotspots and places that may need more attention. I also created a literature synthesis for the Parker River Wildlife NWR to summarize everything we know about salt marshes and make scientific information more accessible to land managers and the general public. Both of these projects sought to improve communication for imperiled salt marshes and the endangered salt marsh sparrow. While it may not be fieldwork, I was still involved in an impactful and meaningful conservation project.
Overall, I had a great experience in the Directorate Fellowship Program and would recommend it to anyone interested in working with the USFWS. My biggest struggle this summer was working on a computer for 8 hours a day. Motivation and mental health were at a low point, especially while worrying about the pandemic and other current events during this crazy year, but fortunately, I had understanding supervisors who were willing to work with me and make my workload manageable. This was my last summer before graduating, and I was hoping to find where in the world I would like to work with my interest in restoration ecology. If anything, I learned that the natural world has so much to offer, and I can’t settle on working in just one place. During my career, I would love to be able to move around and spend time getting to know many ecosystems.