The world is full of natural security systems that protect us from natural disasters, disease, and wild swings in weather. These natural systems are resilient, redundant, and extremely valuable. Unfortunately, we often ignore or actively diminish the value of these systems, leaving us more vulnerable than we should be. Sometimes we even lack awareness of their value until catastrophe strikes. Hurricane Katrina was only a category 3 storm when it began to make landfall, and had the extensive wetlands of southern Louisiana been left largely intact, it might not have caused so much damage. But as it was, engineers had cut a straight line canal called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, known by its acronym as “MR. GO” right through those wetlands to make faster passage for ships from the river to the Gulf of Mexico. To Katrina, MR. GO was like a red carpet welcome, drawing her winds and storm surge straight into the city of New Orleans at its northern end. It was only years after the disaster of Katrina, that the community of the Mississippi Delta finally said enough is enough and demanded that MR. GO be closed.
Sometimes we think we have a better way than nature and we end up spending a lot of energy and resources promoting that way, when we’d actually be better off just letting nature do its job. An analogy is the human foot – it’s a wonderfully adaptable structure that in turn helps us adapt to our environment. As Christopher McDougall writes in Born to Run [link], the human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 12 tendons, and 8 muscles all adapted to respond to changes in the environment as we experienced it running barefoot to track down prey for most of existence on Earth. Yet we’ve spent the last several decades devising ever more complicated and expensive devices (running and training shoes) to take our foot out of its environment, and some studies show this is likely causing more injuries than it prevents. Runners who are ditching their shoes and going back to the way we ran for 99.9% of our time on Earth are discovering that we were indeed “born to run”, injury free, well into old age.
In the same way, we pour millions of tons of concrete to create sea walls and levees, which offer only limited protection from storm surges and often create further coastal erosion by deflecting wave forces down coast. They’re also ugly. Unfortunately, they’re often put up in place of natural “living shorelines” (marshes and coastal wetlands) that do a better job of dissipating storm energy, even as they also absorb greenhouse gases, create habitat and nurseries for fish and shellfish, and look much better than concrete walls.
When we ignore natural security systems, we also reduce natural systems’ abilities to help us adapt to change. In the case of anthropogenic climate alteration, most experts agree that we will need to adapt to inevitable climate-related changes. The University of Arizona just hosted the second international conference on climate change adaptation and people from all over the world presented aspirational and currently functioning projects that will help communities deal with some of the changes already and expected to occur.
Looking at natural adaptable systems provides a consistent way for approaching climate change adaptation. We are bringing nature’s expertise to climate adaptation projects run out of the University of Arizona. Our newest project has an unlikely partner—the U.S. Department of Defense. With funding from SERDP [link to our project page], we will be working with four DoD facilities, representing the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, in the southwestern U.S. to help them identify where the risks and opportunities due to climate change lie, and how they might adapt better in the future. Rafe writes about why the military is so interested in climate change adaptation in this op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic.
Regardless of the application, the Adaptable Solutions Consortium sees natural ecosystems as both a source of knowledge about adaptability and as functioning resilient systems that can enhance our adaptability to a range of risks.