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  • Writer's pictureSam King

Addressing Societal Challenges Through Nature-Based Solutions in Coastal Engineering

Updated: Mar 27

In the face of rising sea levels, intensified storm events and ever-increasing unpredictability in our environment, the traditional paradigms of coastal management are seeing a profound transformation towards engineering solutions that work with nature and for nature. Nature has the power to do the heavy lifting when it comes to building coastal resilience, providing long-term protection and retaining our coastal values.

In recent years, the emphasis in coastal engineering has switched from controlling nature to cooperating with it in order to achieve not only the design objectives, but the best outcomes for the coastal site. We, at International Coastal management, are industry experts in the field of coastal engineering, and have always recognised and understood the value and importance of working with nature in the coastal zone. Our goal has always been to develop solutions to offer resilience and sustainability in the coastal zone, backed by our extensive expertise in working with nature and the broad range of global case studies we've conducted.

Cooperating with Nature

There are a range of different terms being used by coastal engineers, ecologists and planners, such as Green Infrastructure, Nature Based Solutions, Living Shorelines, or Engineering with Nature, and we have been at the forefront of implementing these solutions. Each of these methods all fall under the broader framework of Eco-Engineering, which is the over-arching idea to combine the restoration or preservation of the natural environment with engineering design.

One of the most straightforward methods is Green Infrastructure, or Natural Infrastructure, which is simply the use of natural areas, and engineered solutions that mimic natural processes, to manage and reduce coastal erosion and flooding. This could include dunes, beach nourishment, sediment bypassing, marine and land-based vegetation, shellfish habitat, artificial reefs etc.

Nature-Based Solutions and Living Shorelines also fall within Green Infrastructure and seek to achieve a similar goal; provide coastal protection through the restoration of natural ecological processes. The important distinction here being that it is the natural ecological processes that need to be providing the coastal protection, such as coral reefs, mangroves, saltmarshes or oyster reefs themselves acting to dissipate wave energy to protect the shoreline.

While these ecologies can provide effective coastal protection, it is not so simple to just ‘install’ a mangrove forest or coral reef for example. Some conventional ‘hard’ engineering aspects would likely be required to support the restoration of the ecological processes, such as rock sills, reef substrate beds, sand pumping/bypassing infrastructure, the so called ‘hybrid’ solutions. This is particularly the case on open coastlines where a significant amount of wave energy may need to be dissipated.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concept of Engineering with Nature is a more prescriptive form of green infrastructure that seeks to not only make use of natural systems and processes to deliver coastal protection and water management, but also integrate the solution with social, environmental and economic benefits in order to create a more socially acceptable, viable, equitable and sustainable solution.

Finally, there is IENCE, or Infrastructure that Enhances the Natural Capacity of the Environment, which is another form of eco-engineering that encourages the design of coastal solutions to not only work with, but also enhance the natural environment at the site. This could include incorporating aspects of habitat restoration into conventional solutions, such as advanced marine substates or geometry/rugosity that meets ecological criteria for marine species, or mimicking the natural processes that work effective at the site, such as supporting sand dunes, offshore sand bars, headlands or artificial reefs.

While there are some differences in what is required to meet the definition of each of these methods, they each share common ground with harnessing the power of the natural environment and produce sustainable coastal protection systems that can adapt to the effects of climate change and improve the overall health and resilience of coastal ecosystems and values.

Whether it is IENCE, Green Infrastructure or Engineering with Nature, International Coastal Management has experience with each of these concepts and understands the need for carefully considered design and a multi-disciplinary approach in order to deliver the best outcomes for coastal sites.

We worked with The Nature Conservancy and Noosa Shire Council to deliver the Huon Mundy reefs as part of the Noosa River Oyster Ecosystem Restoration Project; a first in Queensland, Australia, for its scale and a globally recognised nature-based project, which will be included in the 2023 USACE Engineering with Nature Atlas. The goal of the project was to restore the rock oyster shellfish ecosystem to the river, which had once thrived throughout the Noosa estuary and had been a significant food resource and meeting place for the local Kabi Kabi traditional owners. In addition to the multitude of environmental, social and economic benefits the restoration of the shellfish ecosystem would provide, we also recognised the potential for the reefs to provide a sustainable and resilient coastal protection system for the riverbanks, and our design of the reefs was adapted to provide this.

The project has been a success for the region and has become a benchmark for NBS in the region, with restoration of oyster habitat, improvement to marine ecosystem biodiversity, eco-tourism and reconciliation with local Traditional Owners.

Addressing Disaster Risk

Historically, conventional 'hard' engineering options, such as boulder seawalls, have been used for coastal erosion protection against extreme storms, tropical cyclones, east coast lows and hurricanes. While these options offer great coastal protection, when properly designed, they typically offer little benefit to natural ecosystems and preservation of coastal values, and may even exacerbate coastal hazards elsewhere.

Our method is distinct from more conventional approaches, as demonstrated by the Northern Gold Coast Beach Protection Strategy that we developed. As a substitute for the construction of sea walls or groynes, we decided to employ nearshore nourishment in the form of engineered sandbars as well as an artificial reef in order to stabilise the coastline. These techniques assisted in lowering erosion rates, boosting coastal resilience, and protecting local residents from the effects of severe weather occurrences.

Adapting to Climate Change

There is an immediate and critical need to adapt our coastal areas to the new reality as the effects of climate change continue to become more severe. Engineering with Nature, such as through nature-based solutions, living shorelines or eco-engineering provide options that are effective, sustainable and offer many secondary benefits, including carbon sequestration, enhancement of biodiversity, eco-tourism and the preservation of coastal values.

The introduction of nature-based solutions into the Northern Gold Coast Beach Protection Strategy was helpful in protecting local ecosystems on the exposed shorelines, while also assuring the longevity and sustainability of our coastal defences by working with nature, instead of against it. We, at International Coastal Management, are able to design solutions that are flexible and robust by collaborating with nature, providing solutions that offer long-term sustainable protection for coastal communities in the face of changing climate conditions.

Adapting more Nature Based Solutions into Design

The societal challenges posed by climate change and disaster risks require innovative and sustainable solutions. Through our work at International Coastal Management, we've seen firsthand how NBS can successfully address these challenges, creating safer, more resilient coastal communities.

Nature based approaches offer great coastal erosion solutions and with the right design, can be effective for a variety of sites.

Get in contact with us, today and find out how to implement NBS into your coastal protection and enhancement projects

We are committed to pushing the boundaries of what's possible in coastal engineering, using our experience and knowledge to implement NBS globally. If you're interested in learning more about our work or how NBS can benefit your coastal community, please visit our website or get in touch with us directly.

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