Identifying global hotspots where coastal wetland conservation can contribute to nature-based mitigation of coastal flood risks

Van Coppenolle, R. & Temmerman, S. | Global and Planetary Change | 2020 | Peer Reviewed | Original research |


Low-lying coastal zones are increasingly exposed to flood risks due to global change including sea level rise, increasing storm intensity and growing coastal population densities. Local to regional-scale studies have demonstrated that conservation or restoration of coastal wetland ecosystems, such as salt marshes and mangroves, provides nature-based risk mitigation, as these wetlands have the natural capacity to mitigate the impacts of storm surges and related flood risks. Yet, it is unknown how important this nature-based mitigation of coastal flood risks is on a global scale. Here we present the results of a global-scale GIS model assessing the global distribution of inland surface areas and population numbers exposed to storm surges that would first propagate through tidal wetlands before they reach the inhabited land, and hence that would receive storm surge mitigation by the mangrove forests and salt marshes. Further our model quantifies the distance travelled by a storm surge through the tidal wetlands as a measure of the magnitude of storm surge mitigation. Results show that on a worldwide scale, about 30% of the flood-exposed low-lying coastal plain benefits from nature-based storm surge mitigation by tidal wetlands, with the largest areas located in deltas (e.g. Pearl River, Yangtze, Mekong) and estuaries (e.g. Elbe). Areas protected by large wetlands, where a storm surge would first propagate through >5 km of tidal wetlands before it reaches vulnerable land and people, are located in river deltas such as of the Guayas (Ecuador), Mississippi (USA) and Ganges-Brahmaputra (India and Bangladesh). About 35% of the global flood-exposed coastal population receives nature-based storm surge mitigation. The majority of that population (80%) is located in five countries, i.e. China, Vietnam, the Netherlands, India and Germany. Areas more exposed to extreme storm surges (Eastern America, Caribbean Sea, Eastern Asia) include hotspot areas where storm surges are travelling through wider tidal wetlands generating higher risk mitigation, as for example in the Mississippi delta, Chesapeake bay, Ganges-Brahmaputra delta or Yangtze delta. Our global assessment aims to increase general awareness on the capacity of nature-based coastal flood risk mitigation, and to stimulate further local scale analyses in support of its wider application around the world.