New partnership combines best of nature and technology to fight climate change

© CI/Tim Noviello

Above: On the edge of the fishing town of Concepcion, Philippines, a permeable seawall made of bamboo works together with mangroves in an attempt to reduce storm surge. CI’s green-gray project — which will be aided by MIT research — is located nearby on the island of Iloilo.

Nature and technology have long had a complicated relationship. The factories of the Industrial Revolution set in motion the escalation of resource exploitation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that eventually led to the global climate change we face today. On the other hand, technological innovations such as hybrid cars and biodegradable packaging are making it possible for humanity to lessen its toll on the health of our planet.

Although nature and technology are often pitted as opposites — the past versus the future — in truth we don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, to sustain life on this planet, both are crucial. That’s what makes Conservation International’s (CI) new collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) so exciting.

CI and MIT are motivated by a shared sense of urgency to find solutions to the mounting pressures humans are exerting on nature. Human actions are the primary contributor to global climate change and environmental degradation. Reducing these human pressures on nature is essential to prevent conditions from worsening — and surmount the climate impacts already set in motion.

Through this partnership, CI and MIT will explore how to fight climate change by marrying technical, engineering and science-based solutions with nature-based approaches.

From forests to soils to coastal and ocean ecosystems, nature holds great potential for sequestering carbon, keeping it safely locked away and out of the atmosphere. In fact, protecting nature could be 30 percent of the solution to limit warming of the planet. Nature also plays a critical role in helping society adapt to climate change. From protecting coastal cities from rising sea levels and storm surges to ensuring food and freshwater security, natural systems offer solutions that can be more effective and less costly than technological alternatives — particularly in regions of the developing world.

But in order for nature-based solutions to yield their full potential, we need science and engineering, too.

For example, take the devastation inflicted on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. With winds of 314 kilometers (195 miles) per hour, waves up to six meters high and massive flooding in coastal areas, the storm caused more than 6,000 deaths, displaced more than 4 million and destroyed half a million homes.

The most severe loss of life and property damage from Haiyan occurred in the Visayas region of the central Philippines. While a number of factors contributed to the destruction, the degradation and loss of coastal ecosystems — particularly mangroves and coastal forests which could have acted as an absorbent barrier between the communities and the storm surge — left the coasts completely exposed and the region highly vulnerable. More than 80 percent of the mangrove forests along the coasts of the Visayas had been cleared, mainly to install fish and shrimp ponds. (In the video below, a scale model produced by the Dutch research institute Deltares shows how mangrove forests reduce wave strength.)

The scientific community has long recognized that mangroves are effective at reducing the impacts of waves, moderating flooding and controlling erosion. A recent World Bank study of developing countries subject to storms estimated that 3.5 million people in developing countries are currently protected from storm impacts by mangroves — a number expected to more than double to 7.2 million people when you consider predicted impacts of climate change.

Despite these findings, however, governments, engineers and coastal developers have remained highly resistant to integrating mangroves into coastal planning or regularly using them as “green infrastructure” to protect coasts. One major reason for this is the lack of quantified data describing the specific value of these ecosystems for reducing wave height, storm surges, wind strength, erosion and other storm impacts. Without more data on specific values and design parameters, the amount of coastal protection provided by mangroves is hard to quantify — and given the current condition of most mangrove forests, it won’t be enough on its own.

MIT, a leader in science and engineering, is known for developing novel technological solutions that address real-world problems. 

In order to increase our scientific knowledge of what is actually going on in the mangroves, CI and MIT will build on MIT’s laboratory studies that measure the water drag forces on mangroves to develop physically realistic models of the drag and turbulence generated by mangroves and predict the reduction of storm surge. We aim to identify the minimum mangrove area needed to provide beneficial defense, and explore the impact of restored mangrove areas on adjacent coastlines to understand when the redirection of surge by the forest intensifies the surge at adjacent sites. In addition to the Philippines, this model will be tested in other places CI currently works, such as China, Suriname, Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Other initial joint CI-MIT research projects will focus on topics such as cities and nature-based solutions and how to use technology for ecological monitoring. Together, we plan to develop and deploy educational opportunities for MIT students, CI staff and the broader public and engage diverse stakeholders in the complex scientific, technical and socioeconomic work of enlisting natural systems to contribute to climate solutions.

Around the globe, everyone from national governments to global companies to academics to small towns is working on their own solutions to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. Protecting nature may be crucial, but it’s only one part of the puzzle — and for a problem this large and complex, we need to share knowledge and work together to fight it every way we know how.

Daniela Raik is the senior vice president of CI’s Moore Center for Science.