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Humans Doing More Harm Than Good In Protecting Wetlands From Rising Water

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Rising oceans are a big threat to wetlands around the Chesapeake Bay, but scientists at the Smithsonian say wetlands can protect themselves — as long as humans stay out of the way.

A review paper from the Smithsonian concludes that rising waters simply aren't the biggest factor in wetland demise. Instead, it's human efforts to control those rising ocean waters that are more damaging to wetland survival, mostly in the form of hardened shoreline structures like dams and seawalls.

Review co-author Patrick Megonigal says hardened shorelines disrupt wetlands' amazing ability raise themselves by building up soil to outpace sea-level rise. Groundwater withdrawal and artificial drainage are also big factors, especially here in the Chesapeake region.

Megonigal says most scientists, engineers and city planners understand this.

"We're a long way from that trickling into the imagination of politicians, residents, people who have a big stake in the outcome of these kinds of decisions," he says.

Megonigal says the Chesapeake region has some of the strongest laws in the world protecting its wetlands, but also has some of highest relative sea-level rise on the planet, making this an issue that isn't likely to go away.

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