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Sea Level Rise – Where Do We Go From Here?

David J. Yozzo, Ph.D.

The occurrence and destructive aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck New Jersey’s central/southern coast in 2012, certainly captured the attention of those who live, work and recreate along shorelines. For proponents and practitioners of ecosystem restoration projects, especially coastal wetlands, the effects of Sandy were striking.

Coastal resiliency planning and sea level rise became a major concern after the destructive effects of Hurricane Sandy

Coastal resiliency planning and sea level rise became a major concern after the destructive effects of Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Dr. David Yozzo.

While it has been recognized for decades that restored coastal wetlands are subject to adaptive modification as a result of stochastic processes, such as storm events and vessel traffic, the design of these systems has not always benefitted from forecasting the effects of sea level rise (SLR) on tidal flooding regimes and storm events over anticipated project lifetimes (i.e. 50+ years). Resource management agencies and coastal ecologists often question the value of investing considerable time, money and labor into restoring habitats at the dynamic water’s edge – will these ecosystems and the ecological and social benefits they provide persist for sufficient durations given current SLR forecasts? How should current thinking with regard to design elevations, planting schemes, and proximity to adjacent natural and engineered habitats be modified to compensate for SLR impacts, especially within estuaries surrounded by dense residential, industrial, and commercial infrastructure?

The Impacts of Rising Seas

Centuries of shoreline development and realignment have left New Jersey and other coastal land forms in jeopardy of inundation and ecological habitat loss

Centuries of shoreline development and realignment have left New Jersey and other coastal land forms in jeopardy of inundation and ecological habitat loss.

The primary impact of sea level rise on coastal environments and infrastructure is the direct loss of land and habitat from inundation. A secondary impact is the migration of coastal landforms inland (retreat). In an urban setting such as the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, the likelihood of coastal retreat is severely restricted from centuries of shoreline development and re-alignment. An additional impact of climate change and sea level rise is the effect of increased salinity associated with rising coastal waters, ultimately resulting in the conversion of freshwater tidal wetlands to brackish salt marshes in the upper reaches of estuaries.

Piermont Marsh, lower Hudson River – common reed (Phragmites australis) is believed to have provided a defense from storm surge damage to nearby homes and other coastal infrastructure during Hurricane Sandy.

Piermont Marsh, lower Hudson River – Common reed (Phragmites australis) is believed to have provided a defense from storm surge damage to nearby homes and other coastal infrastructure during Hurricane Sandy.

Presently, the rate of sea level rise in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary (HRE) is approximately 2.7 mm/year, which exceeds the global average of 1.8 mm/year (IPCC, 2014, Needelman et al. 2012). The higher observed average rate of sea-level rise in this region is partially the result of post-glacial rebound. This exacerbates the amount of observed wetland/shoreline subsidence attributed to eustatic sea-level rise (i.e., that brought about by an increase in the volume of the world’s oceans, because of the thermal expansion) (Hartig et al. 2002). Along with increases in mean sea level, storm intensity and frequency are also predicted to increase. A shift in storm intensity towards Polar regions is anticipated under future climate change scenarios, with more frequent and damaging storms expected to occur in the north Atlantic (NWF 2011). These processes are complementary, as an increase in mean sea level will exacerbate the surge effects associated with more intense and frequent coastal storms.

Coastal Resiliency Planning

An important factor that is often ignored in forecasting the response of coastal wetlands to sea level rise is tidal range, which varies considerably along the world’s coastlines. Estuarine and coastal habitats characterized by a micro-tidal regime (tidal range of less than 2 meters) (i.e., the Gulf of Mexico) may experience the greatest effects of sea level rise, as native plant and animal communities are not accustomed to large fluctuations in inundation frequency and depth. In contrast, macro-tidal systems (4+ meter tidal range), such as the Puget Sound region of Washington or estuaries along Maine’s coast, are expected to exhibit a considerable degree of resilience to changes in sea level, as the plant and animal communities present in these systems are adapted to wide fluctuations in tides and current regimes. Meso-tidal estuaries, for example the Hudson–Raritan Estuary, are likely to exhibit a moderate degree of resilience in comparison to micro- or macro-tidal systems (Needelman et al. 2012).

Piermont Marsh, lower Hudson River – common reed (Phragmites australis) is believed to have provided a defense from storm surge damage to nearby homes and other coastal infrastructure during Hurricane Sandy.

Ribbed mussel (Guekenisa demissa) and salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) matrix behind dilapidated wooden cribbing in Jamaica Bay, NY. Both species function as ecosystem engineers to stabilize coastal sediments.

An additional source of uncertainty in attempting to predict the effects of climate change and sea level rise on coastal habitats within the Hudson-Raritan Estuary (and elsewhere) is the occurrence of non-linear response patterns (Needelman et al. 2012). Often, impacts to wetlands and other coastal habitats are not necessarily observed until a disturbance threshold is reached. This may explain the rapid and recent loss of salt marsh islands in Jamaica Bay, New York, a lagoon-type estuary subjected to dredging, coastal development, and wastewater inputs for several decades before exhibiting tangible degradation. Once the impact threshold was reached, perhaps in the late 1990s, the system reached a tipping point, and degradation became readily discernible. In the future, Jamaica Bay will likely continue to experience rapid erosion and/or subsidence of wetlands in the face of rising sea level. In contrast, wetlands associated with a continuous source of sediments from river drainage basins (i.e., Raritan River wetlands) may persist for a much longer duration before reaching disturbance thresholds.

Non-linear responses in coastal systems are not well-studied and future restoration programs in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary would benefit substantially from a better understanding of ecological tipping points and disturbance thresholds, especially with regard to enhancing resiliency in the face of climate change impacts.

The second edition of this two part blog series will provide an overview of ongoing restoration and management initiatives in response to SLR within the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, including living shoreline approaches, managed retreat, and the beneficial use of dredged material in coastal habitat restoration programs.


Hartig, E.K, V. Gornitz, A. Kolker, F. Mushacke, and D. Fallon. 2002. Anthropogenic and climate change impacts on salt marshes of Jamaica Bay, New York City. Wetlands 22:71-89.

IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014. Synthesis Report. An Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Needelman, B.A., S. Crooks, C.A. Shumway, J.G. Titus, R.Takacs, and J.E. Hawkes. 2012. Restore-Adapt-Mitigate: Responding to Climate Change Through Coastal Habitat Restoration. B.A. Needelman, J. Benoit, S. Bosak, and C. Lyons (eds.). Restore America’s Estuaries, Washington D.C., pp. 1-63.

NWF 2011. Practical Guidance for Coastal Climate-Smart Conservation Projects in the Northeast: Case Examples for Coastal Impoundments and Living Shorelines. National Wildlife Federation.

About the Author

Dave YozzoDr. David Yozzo is an estuarine ecologist with over 20 years of experience in academics, government, and the private sector. His professional and research expertise includes community ecology of tidal and freshwater wetlands, ecosystem functional assessment, and coastal/freshwater habitat restoration.

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Great Ecology: A SmartCEO Future 50 Company

Great Ecology is honored to be recognized as one of the 2015 Future 50 companies by SmartCEO. This program acknowledges the success of 50 fast-growth, mid-sized companies in the New York region. Based on a three-year average of employee and revenue growth, Great Ecology has made the list with a growth rate of 194% and the creation of 21 new jobs. Founder & CEO, Dr. Mark S. Laska shares, “it is an honor to accept this prestigious award alongside some of the top companies and CEOs in New York.”  Dr. Laska is featured in the January/February edition of the SmartCEO publication along with New York’s other award-winning entrepreneurs.

SmartCEO Future 50


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The Best of 2014 Blog Series – Part IV

Enjoy the final edition of the Best of 2014 Blog Series. Help us pick this year’s Blog of the Year Winner! Vote for your favorite blog from 2014.

True or false? All water beneath the Earth's surface is considered groundwater. Photo Courtesy of Romain Pondita

True or False? Any water occurring beneath the ground is groundwater. Photo Courtesy of Romain Pondita.

Water Under Your Feet
Alejandro Baladron Julian, M.S.

There is a tremendous amount of mythology and confusion surrounding the sources of groundwater. This may explain why techniques like dowsing, using supernatural abilities to find water below the ground, are still used today instead of the most basic principles of groundwater science.


Tree rings

Researchers are tapping into trees to reveal chronological records of contamination events.

Trees Provide Evidence for Forensic Scientists
Ioana Petrisor, Ph.D.

Forensic Environmental Scientists are using tree rings to trace and age-date contamination events in order to design remediation strategies.




Decrepit vestiges of a once booming economy litter the Salton Sea shoreline.

Decrepit vestiges of a once booming economy litter the Salton Sea shoreline.

The Dying Salton Sea: A Lake with a Rich Past and an Uncertain Future
George Patten

California’s largest lake, once a booming economy and a flourishing ecosystem, now abandoned and littered with skeletons. Why we must act now to prevent further devastation.




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The Best of 2014 Blog Series – Part III

The Best of 2014 Blog series is back with three more of our favorites from the year. Help us decide this year’s winner after part IV is released.

carbon credits forest

The Willits Woods Project, a forest conservation initiative in Northern California, could generate up to the equivalent of $3.6 M in carbon offset credits.

Carbon Offset Credits: Tradeable Market Goods 
Marlene Tyner, M.E.S.M.

What are carbon offset credits and why are they so important? Carbon offset credits are a sustainable commodity for modern entrepreneurs, non-profits, corporations, and private land owners looking to make a living out of environmental conservation.




Colorado River

The majestic Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt.

A River Runs Through it, Again
George Patten

For the first time in decades the Colorado river found its way towards the Gulf thanks to a bi-national agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Just one pulse of the river could help to jump start riparian ecosystem recovery in the region.



A male Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

A male Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy of Bill Schiess.

Steppe it up –  Solving the Greater Sage-Grouse Controversy
Ashley Tuggle, M.E.M.

The debate over the greater Sage Grouse listing is heating up – With a range stretching across approximately 165 million acres in 11 states, the economic impact of a potential ESA listing for the sage-grouse is staggering.






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The Best of 2014 Blog Series – Part II

Part II of this year’s best blogs heats up with the environmental impacts of oil spills, the SITES initiative for Ecological Landscape Design, and America’s several-billion dollar problem, invasive species. At the end of the series we invite you to vote for your favorite blog to be this year’s winner!

NOAA oil restoration

Tankers skim oil from the surface of the ocean in an attempt to mitigate detrimental impacts to coastal ecosystems.

Marine Ecosystems Battling Oil Impacts
Ashley Tuggle, M.E.M

Galveston Bay alone, has had an average of 285 oil spills annually since 1998. Ending all oil spills is probably not possible, but designing restoration to try to combat their impacts is.




Bioswales and trails from the Fort Totten Master Plan.     Photo Courtesy of Nancy Owens Studio.

Setting a New Standard for Ecological Landscape Design
Chris Loftus, RLA, ASLA

The SITES initiative aims to evaluate a landscape’s ability to provide ecosystem services and long term economic benefits, similar to the LEED Certification for sustainable building construction.





A hungry carp surfaces for a meal in turbid waters.

Carpe Diem – Seize the Carp
Rick Black, M.S.

Asian Carp are an invasive species that threaten to throttle the Great Lakes ecosystem if allowed to migrate unchecked. So far 13 million pounds carp have been removed from Lake Utah in only 3 years; (An est.18 million pounds of carp remain in the lake).



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Great Ecology Makes Another Splash

Nick Buhbe, Great Ecology’s Director of Ecology and one of the ecologists involved in the restoration of Lake San Marcos, summarized the progress of the current data collection efforts at a recent public meeting. The project involves multiple stakeholders and numerous complexities due to a variety of suspected sources, and is heading toward development of a remediation strategy. Mr. Buhbe described the importance of monitoring and the subsequent computer modeling that will help to determine the most effective restoration strategy for the lake: “the modeling effort is the key to understanding what the [nutrient] excess is, and what can be done about it.” This approach toward a long-term strategy was echoed by Laurie Walsh of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, who expressed an appreciation for the investigation and the speed of progress toward a solution.

Read the full U-T San Diego article.

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The Best of 2014 Blog Series

As another year comes to a close, we take a look at some of our favorite blog posts from 2014. At the end of the series we invite you to vote for your favorite blog to be the winner!


Mussels grow in abundance along rocky coastlines and provide invaluable ecosystem services.

A Rally Cry for Mussels
Erin Hathaway

Mussels and oysters provide valuable ecosystem services including water filtration and wave attenuation from damaging coastal storms.

UAS combats poaching in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.dronezine.it/2144/elefante-spaventato-elefante-salvato/

UAS are being used to prevent poaching of elephants in Africa. Photo courtesy of Dronezine.it





Eco-Tech Revolution
Zak Lehmann

Unmanned Aerial Systems see dramatic increase in use as the FAA struggles to regulate the booming industry. Will they be able to keep up with the accelerated pace of this technology?


The massive Bay Delta Conservation Plan will incorporate a huge portion of California. Map Courtesy of the US EPA.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan In a Nutshell
Jessie Quinn, Ph.D.

The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan seeks to protect the 75,000 square miles of water supply the Delta provides to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California, while also maintaining ecosystem health of the associated wetland, riparian, grassland, and forest habitats and the plant and animal species.

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Great Ecology Makes a Splash on the News

Shedding Light on Stormwater Sampling in Lake San Marcos

Torrential rains, abating California’s persistent drought, had Great Ecology’s field crews working around the clock to capture the first runoff flows of the season into Lake San Marcos, one of Great Ecology’s California projects. Great Ecology’s Ecologist, Ashley Tuggle, was interviewed by KPBS reporter Alison St. John about the stormwater sampling underway, explaining the importance of capturing the first nutrient flows to determine where potential pollutants could be coming from.

Contact us to find out more about Lake San Marcos and other related projects underway at Great Ecology.

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Loss of Sea Stars Could Collapse Marine Communities

Tide Pool Ecosystem

A vibrant inter-tidal ecosystem located in Santa Cruz, CA.

Kate Gazzo, M.S.

At the rush of incoming waves, algae sways back and forth inside tide pools along the Pacific coast. Sculpins dart in and out of the shadows while purple, orange, and yellow orche starfish (Pisaster ochraceus) cling to rocks. Anyone who was fortunate enough to grow up along a coastline or even to experience tide pooling during a visit knows that one can get lost for hours observing these ecosystems. Unfortunately, tide pools that were teeming with life only a year or so ago, are currently being threatened as is the entire balance of these ecosystems. Intertidal communities are changing as a result of sea star wasting disease. In many areas along the coast you can notice dozens of diseased and dying starfish-a keystone predator in intertidal ecosystems. How long this wasting episode will last is unknown, and scientists have only begun to speculate as to the cause.

An Introduction to Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Beginning in 2013, researchers in Olympic National Park in Washington observed populations of sea stars dying or, more accurately described, “wasting away”. The disease has been appropriately named sea star wasting syndrome. This disease causes the limbs of sea stars to contort and form large lesions that eventually lead to legs and sometimes even entire bodies of sea stars essentially dissolving. A majority of sea stars that become infected die within a matter of days if not hours (Gardiner 2014).

In 2013, the disease appeared in localized regions along the Pacific coast-first in Olympic National Park, then Vancouver, Monterey, and Puget Sound. During 2014, the disease spread as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico and reached previously unaffected areas such as Oregon. While sea stars have undergone disease outbreaks in the past, including wasting events, the geographical extent (4,000 miles ranging from Alaska to Mexico) has never been this widespread. Furthermore, during previous wasting events it was predominately only one species that appeared to be susceptible to the disease; currently, up to 12 species have been affected by this wasting event (Gashler 2014).

Sea Stars A Keystone Predator

Sea Star Consumes Mussel

An Ochre sea star feasting on a mussel.

The most commonly observed sea stars that are affected are ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides). Ochre stars are at risk of becoming locally extinct along the Oregon coast where sea star wasting is particularly pronounced. Because of their role as keystone predators, ochre and sunflower stars are vital to the community structure of intertidal ecosystems. During an experiment in 1969, a scientist named Robert Paine from University of Washington discovered that the presence (or absence) of these stars heavily influenced rocky intertidal communities (Gashler 2014). Specifically, Dr. Paine noted that the removal of this species disrupts the balance of other species in marine communities by increasing the number of smaller predators, such as sea urchins and mussels, which sea stars would normally consume. When sunflower and ochre stars were removed from the shoreline, sea urchins began to dominate the intertidal community and kelp, a primary food source of sea urchins, which normally serves as food and habitat for other species, became scarce. Without the top-down predator control provided by starfish, mussel populations also disproportionately increased in relation to other species. The result was the displacement of a number of other species, including barnacles and limpets. Today, similar to the outcome of the 1969 experiment, marine communities are being re-shaped; this time, however, communities are changing not as the result of a small scale experiment but as a result of sea star wasting occurring across thousands of miles.

The Link Between Climate Change and Marine Pathogens

So far, the cause of sea star wasting is thought to be a virus, more specifically a type of parvovirus (Parvoviridae) which affects a range of species including invertebrates and vertebrates.  Interestingly, the type of parvovirus-Sea Star-Associated Densovirus, has existed since the 1940’s and also occurs in sea urchins. Why this virus is suddenly causing large-scale sea star die-offs is uncertain (Osgood 2014). A theory that many of researchers are leaning to is that abiotic stressors, such as warmer water temperatures and a lower pH, are impacting the ability of marine organisms to cope with disease (Burge et al. 2013; Bates et al. 2009). Warming ocean waters is one of the most pronounced changes that has occurred within marine ecosystems in recent years. During a small localized wasting event in 2008, researchers at the University of British Columbia first documented an increase in disease susceptibility in Pisatser ochraceus correlated to warmer water temperatures (Bates et al. 2009).

NOAA Land Ocean Temperatures

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows unusually warm oceanic temperatures.

Changes in environment, both on land and in the ocean, influence the intensity of disease outbreaks (Burge et al. 2013). According to Colleen Burge, a marine biologist at Cornell, the number of marine disease outbreaks spike following higher than average water temperatures. Warmer temperatures tend to make marine organisms, such as corals, more susceptible to disease by weakening their immune response and increasing the occurrence of disease. Marine pathogens are also moving toward the poles following the migration of marine organisms (Burge et al. 2013). This may be a clue as to why sea star wasting which once occurred in localized areas and only affected a small percent of populations is now extensively affecting populations thousands of miles apart.

Looking Forward

During 2014, sea star wasting spread to Alaska and Mexico. In 2015, water temperatures in the Pacific are predicted to remain elevated as a result of an El Nino weather pattern, further extending the duration of physical stress incurred on sea star populations. Even if sea star populations recover, the intensity and extensive geographic range of this wasting event signifies an alarming trend- the declining health and resiliency of marine ecosystems. It is uncertain whether the loss of sea stars in marine communities will be lasting or temporary. However, one thing is certain, the diversity, composition, and abundance-the entire structure of particular marine communities, depend on the presence of starfish. As ecologists, we tend to look at systems in their entirety, however, starfish remind us that there are defining species within an ecosystem which necessitate a higher level of concern.

(Watch this clip of starfish legs breaking off and moving independently. Caution: disturbing content).


Bates, A. et al. 2009. Effects of temperature, season and locality on wasting disease in the keystone predatory sea star Pisaster ochraceus. Inter-Research Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 86: 245-251.

Burge, C. et al. 2014. Climate change influences on marine infectious diseases: implications for management and societyAnnual review of marine science 6: 249-277.

Gashler, K. 2014. Sea star wasting devastates Pacific coast species. Cornell University, Cornell Chronicle.

Gardiner, L. 2014. Sea star deaths along the west coast elicit close study. Scientific American, Blogs.

University of California, Santa Cruz, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Dept. 2014. Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring, Trends and Synthesis: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. 

About the Author

Kate Gazzo Ecologist

Kate Gazzo is an ecologist specializing in water quality issues and watershed management. Kate holds a Master’s degree from the University of San Francisco in Environmental Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in Biology from Florida Gulf Cost University.

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Congratulations to Great Ecology Designers as New ASLA Chapter Board Members

Great Ecology is proud to announce that two of our Landscape Architects/Designers, Carl Carlson RLA, and Chris Loftus RLA,  have been elected to Executive Boards for the Association of Landscape Architects (ASLA) chapters in New York and Colorado.

Carl CarlsonNew York based Associate Landscape Designer, Carl Carlson has over eight years of experience in the design and construction management of large scale landscape projects. He has served on multiple design committees including the ASLA-NY, AIANY/ASLA-NY’s Post Sandy Initiative Waterfront Working Group, and NYC’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency through the Municipal Art Society. In addition to his newly elected position as an executive board member, Carl serves on the planning committee for NYASLA.

Chris Loftus, RLABased in Great Ecology’s Denver office, Landscape Architect Chris Loftus has over 10 years of experience working in the Western United States. He has experience developing neighborhood and community master plans, designing innovative stormwater solutions, and solving an array of equally complex landscape projects. As the new ASLA Colorado Chapter Vice President of Programs, Chris will monitor, mange, and provide oversight for all Chapter programs and chair the Events and Service Committee.

Great Ecology congratulates Carl and Chris on their elected positions!

Contact our Design Team to learn more about Great Ecology’s landscape architecture practice and ecological design services.

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