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Enhancing Coastal Resiliency via Natural Capital

On the Massachusetts North Shore, six communities are connected to and protected by the over twenty-thousand acres of salt marsh, tidal rivers, barrier beaches and mudflats of the Great Marsh. The communities of Salisbury, Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich and Essex are looking for ways to make this area more resilient to severe weather events accompanied by rising sea levels while protecting existing natural and built resources. The recently released Great Marsh Coastal Adaptation Plan (GMCAP) focuses on how the existing natural capital of the Great Marsh already offers protection to these communities and suggests ways each community can enhance this resource to meet their particular needs. Most evident is the way the marsh acts like a sponge absorbing stormwater, thereby protecting the infrastructure of the nearby communities. This natural infrastructure, often described as natural capital, is in contrast to some proposed solutions calling for elaborate sea walls in nearby Boston.

Photo courtesy Aber, Aber, and Valentine

Aerial View of the Great Marsh

The GMCAP assesses threats and suggests specific mitigation plans for each of the six towns. Funded by a Hurricane Sandy grant and produced by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA), it includes needed human infrastructure changes and nature based strategies, (1) as follows:

Recommendations for stabilizing the Great Marsh:

  • Remove unneeded dams to restore river flow.

  • Elevate roadways and move or retrofit buildings to prevent flooding.

  • Restore dunes and barrier beaches through techniques such as revegetation.

  • Restore connectivity of river and coastal systems to efficiently redistribute water.

  • Naturally stabilize the shoreline to help absorb wave energy. (2)

Kristen Grubb, one of the authors from IRWA, emphasizes that it is not necessarily a major storm that is the greatest threat. She states that repeated storms over the course of a winter can do as much damage as a single major storm. Salisbury Beach, for example, sees repeated storm surges over their infrastructure along the beach. Riverbank erosion in Ipswich threatens the stability of the Ipswich Town Hall. (3) Plum Island, especially at its northern end, suffers from erosion and shifting sands on the barrier beach. Both Newburyport and Newbury have lost several homes to storms in recent winters.

Newburyport has held meetings to update residents about its adaptation planning which is supported by a state grant. Mayor Holaday of Newburyport emphasized that this will require continued public support and adequate funding. (4) Other towns are holding forums on coastal resiliency and the steps needed to protect infrastructure from worsening nature-based impacts.

Through GOMI, Newburyport students have introduced "climate cafés" (profiled in an earlier issue of this journal) into this region. Partnering with the regional environmental group Eight Towns and the Great Marsh, they are planning to introduce this strategy to other communities of students. With Ipswich already on board, they hope to introduce this model of civil discourse to the other towns as part of their educational outreach.

A valuable source of research is available to the communities from the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study of the Plum Island Ecosystem. Their base, at Marshview Farm in Newbury, hosts dozens of scientists annually monitoring studies of erosion in the marsh, impacts on habitats, and health of species which play key roles in maintaining the integrity of this protective resource. Led by Dr. Anne Giblin of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole MA, the LTER scientists are not just doing science, but have a vested interest in putting their knowledge into action. Their experience with changes in the Great Marsh can be important in helping the towns see the complexities involved as they address the challenges ahead.

Another source of outreach and education available is the Mass Audubon Salt Marsh Science Project. This program introduces students of the Great Marsh communities to the natural value provided by the Great Marsh to the built environment. Several smaller projects have involved local middle and high school students learning more about natural capital while participating in projects such as beach grass and eelgrass restoration and habitat remediation.

Caroline Link, Newburyport High School planting eelgrass as part of the restoration project

Author John Halloran and Mass Audubon Scientist Liz Duff preparing for a pepperweed pull on the Great Marsh

The Coastal Adaptation Plan will bring communities together to share information about what they are dealing with in their town and what they can learn from the experiences of neighboring communities. This increasing attention being paid in coastal towns is often driven by or supported by student environmental groups. There will be more leadership opportunities for GOMI's L2SG students and teachers to participate, as planning and remediation efforts continue to evolve.


1. National Wildlife Federation, Great Marsh Coastal Adaptation Plan, Dec. 2017

2. Ibid

3. Rattigan, David, "A Buffer Against the Raging Tide", Boston Globe, Jan 28, 2018

4. Ibid


John Halloran is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba. John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S. For 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools. John has special interest and expertise in teacher training and standards for learning in math and science. His role has included direct teaching, teacher training, program development, grant writing, and developing partnerships with professionals in the field.

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