Mason leads the way in a NOAA effort to protect the Maryland coast

View of Belmont Bay from the Flood Hazards Research Lab at Mason's Potomac Science Center.
View of Belmont Bay from the Flood Hazards Research Lab at Mason's Potomac Science Center. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services.

George Mason University is taking the lead in a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) designed to assess the threat of rising sea levels and flooding to Maryland’s coastal communities.

Mason’s Celso Ferreira, an associate professor of water resources engineering within Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering, is the lead principal investigator on a team that also includes the Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy. The aim of the three-year project is to better inform decision-makers on the best ways to manage and preserve the state’s more than 7,000 miles of shoreline.

“Sea levels have risen one foot in Maryland over the last 100 years,” Ferreira said. “And those sea levels are continuing to go up, so the state is concerned about coastal conditions in the future. Our job is to provide the best scientific knowledge and engineering strategies available to state policy makers.”

The research will focus on coastal risk reduction benefits provided by natural and natural-based features (NNBF) in Maryland’s Chesapeake and Coastal Bays under current conditions and with projected sea-level rise in the wake of ongoing global climate change. Rising sea levels can change how ecosystems work when combined with inundation from tides and storms, meaning that enhancing coastal resiliency is imperative. Experts anticipate more extreme coastal storms and up to two additional feet of sea-level rise over the next 30 years, with flooding from storm surge and erosion expected to become increasingly more problematic to communities and residents less equipped or prepared for them.

Help could come in the form of marshes and submerged aquatic vegetation that could serve as a buffer that would mitigate the effects of rising sea levels, said Ferreira, whose research team will include a Mason doctoral student and a group of undergraduates.

“Marshes are natural protection against extreme events,” Ferreira said.

Using computer models to extrapolate data, he and his team plan to work with local communities to identify existing sites, quantify how much they aid in the fight against flooding and erosion and best educate state decision-makers as they anticipate coastal management for the future.

“We need to come up with measures that will best protect the coast,” Ferreira said.