Protecting homes and ecosystems with living shorelines

Former doctoral student Carter Smith is researching living shorelines as an economic way for coastal homeowners to protect their property while also doing something good for the environment.

For coastal homeowners, hurricane season can be a stressful time.

Not only are there personal safety risks, but the powerful storms can wreak havoc on homes and property.

Traditional property protection methods primarily consist of hardened shorelines – like bulkheads and seawalls. But researchers at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences are studying an ecologically and economically friendly alternative called living shorelines.

Living shorelines consist of living, restored ecosystem, such as a restored salt march. They protect property at a low cost while serving as a great habitat for fish and crustaceans. Many living shorelines also have engineered structures like an offshore breakwater made of recycled oyster shells or granite boulders, which can help protect the marsh.

“Particularly here in North Carolina, where we’re very concerned about sea-level rise and hurricanes and tropical storms, living shorelines can give a little bit of extra protection for our highly eroding coastlines,” said Carter Smith, a recent doctoral student from the UNC Institute of Marine Science.

Smith’s research focuses on the intersection of ecology and socioeconomics of living shorelines.

“I like the nexus between science and policy. Living shorelines are providing a service that homeowners want,” said Smith, who graduated in May. “But then it’s sort of sneaking in all these amazing ecological co-benefits.”

Her research has found that living shorelines are five times less expensive to maintain than bulkheads and they are also better at controlling water elevation.

“They really could be a potential win-win for homeowners and the environment,” she said.

Smith won a 2018 Impact Award from The Graduate School for research with a direct impact on North Carolina.