Climate Change and Conservation with the MHLC Board

On a May morning in Selkirk, NY, MHLC’s Board of Directors met with Scenic Hudson’s Science Director Nava Tabaka and Land Conservation Director Seth Mckee under an overcast sky. The rain held off as the group hiked through a property that was once proposed as a site for a landfill but which has been protected by Scenic Hudson. This property borders the Hudson River and includes part of the Binnen Kill watershed. The group observed the extensive wetlands and discussed how rising sea levels may affect the area.

After the morning hike, the Board reconvened at the home of Christine and Paul Shields, who graciously hosted the Board’s annual retreat: an opportunity to connect, reflect, and look to the future. The staff from Scenic Hudson, our partner and fellow Land Trust Alliance-accredited non-profit organization, shared their groundbreaking tools for strategic conservation planning in a changing climate.

Claiborne Walthall, newest member of the MHLC Board, reflected that “Scenic Hudson’s presentation was very useful. It was interesting to learn about what a partner organization is doing, and exciting to see the possibility for incorporating climate change into our conservation strategy to expand upon the solid criteria which we already use. This was a great example of learning from a companion organization.”

Projected Changes Within the Hudson River Estuary

Seth and Nava of Scenic Hudson explained to the group the potential impacts of sea level change under various future projections based on scientific modeling. Sea levels have already risen 15 inches along the river since 1900, and the rate of change is increasing quickly. An increase of six feet is possible by the end of this century. This change will have a dramatic impact on the Hudson’s unique intertidal freshwater wetlands.

Scenic Hudson is using sea level rise modeling and climate science to better understand these changes and to guide their conservation work. By using complex computer modeling and building on work from organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Scenic Hudson is developing online mapping tools which can guide land protection efforts of organizations throughout the Hudson Valley. The MHLC Board discussed how our organization can use this framework to guide conservation decisions going forward, specifically within the Hudson River Estuary‘s thousands of acres of wetlands.

An estuary is a body of water found at the meeting of an ocean and a river. Here, saltwater mixes with freshwater. The Hudson River Estuary is almost 150 miles long- this ecosystem reaches from Manhattan to the Federal Dam in Troy. As tides come in, salt water moves upriver. As tides go out, the salt water retreats. This balance between ocean water and river water creates both brackish and freshwater environments which have evolved under the constant influence of the tides, adjusting and thriving in an environment where the movement and chemistry of the water continually fluctuates.

Over 7,000 acres of intertidal wetlands are located in the Hudson River Estuary, and they contain critical habitats for thousands of species of plants and animals. These wetlands also serve as filters, removing pollutants from the Hudson River and regulating water quality.

These unique ecosystems, and the benefits they provide to human communities along the Hudson River, are under direct threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change. As water levels rise in the Atlantic Ocean, water levels will rise along the Hudson River Estuary.

From Scenic Hudson’s Report “Protecting The Pathways”

The Hudson River Estuary is likely to experience 3-6 feet of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century—a rate faster than any in recent millennia and potentially much faster than the wetlands’ ability to accrete and maintain their position between the tides. Steep slopes and shoreline development may further limit the wetlands’ potential to adapt by restricting horizontal movement. Together these factors pose a fundamental challenge to the long term persistence of the Hudson River Estuary’s wetland habitats and the health of the entire ecosystem.Scenic Hudson

Protecting Wetlands Along the Northern Estuary

The northern reaches of this ecosystem, which are situated within the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy’s service area of Albany, Montgomery, and Schenectady Counties, are outside the reach of the Atlantic saltwater. According to Scenic Hudson, “in the northern half of this long freshwater stretch the river is shallow and broad, and undeveloped low-elevation shores are more abundant. Approximately half of the estuary’s current tidal wetland area is found in this most northern reach.”

As the sea level rises, we can fight the loss of wetlands by protecting existing wetland areas and by protecting wetland pathways, the areas identified as both current wetlands and the adjacent areas into which the wetlands may migrate as sea level rises and sediment accretes. By preserving these wetland pathways, MHLC can increase the adaptability of freshwater wetlands along the northern traces of the Hudson River Estuary.

From Protecting the Pathways: “Ensuring that wetlands have the physical room to adapt to rising sea levels is essential to the long-term health of the Hudson River Estuary ecosystem as well as human communities. A land protection strategy that prioritizes undeveloped parcels with the greatest potential for hosting future wetland areas (including persistent current wetlands and wetland migration areas) can serve as a blueprint for action by federal and state agencies, municipalities, land trusts, and other conservation entities. Minimizing future development and infrastructure investments in these areas will also reduce risks to communities and property owners in the changing flood zone.”

Looking Forward: MHLC and Climate Change

In our silver anniversary year, we are taking our 25 years of experience, consulting with other conservation experts, and incorporating the latest scientific research and policy changes to expand and improve our conservation plans moving forward.

Want to join the conversation about climate change and conservation in the Capital Region? MHLC will have a table at the upcoming League of Women Voters of Albany County Meeting on Wednesday, May 31 from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at the Bethlehem Town Hall. This meeting, entitled “Climate Change: The End? Or the Beginning?,” features guest panelists Congressman Paul Tonko and Dr. Jeff Corbin, Chairman of Environmental Science at Union College. This program will focus on new innovations in conservation, business, and science in addressing climate change.

Comments are closed