Sustainability in Chesapeake Bay Shorescapes

climate change, management decisions, and ecological functions

NSF Coastal SEES (2016-2020)


VIMS: Carl Hershner, Donna Marie Bilkovic, Molly Mitchell, Joseph Zhang, Jian Shen
William & Mary: Sarah Stafford, Randy Chambers, Matthias Leu
UGA: Shana Jones, Matthew Hauer
ODU: Michelle Covi

Project Goal:

To investigate the linkages and feedback between human and natural components of Chesapeake Bay shorescapes (a shoreline zone which includes riparian, intertidal, and littoral areas) to inform decision-making for sustainability.

The question we seek to answer is how the natural system is driving user behavior, and what changes in user characteristics and/or governance systems might result in different decision choices.  Together with knowledge about the ecological outcomes resulting from different decision behaviors, we intend to assess the probability that a sustained ecosystem service capacity can be achieved.


Shorescapes are ideal areas to investigate linkages between human and natural components of the ecosystem because they are significant and critical points of intense interaction.  We have several extensive long-term data sets (e.g., Virginia shoreline and wetland inventories and wetland permit activity) and some encouraging preliminary analytical work that suggest we can model the social-ecological system and evaluate possible future outcomes based on the emergent insights. The goal of the project is to discover the elements of the Shorescape Social-Ecological System (SES) that have the greatest influence on attainment of sustainable outcomes.

To achieve this goal we will first model tidal wetlands changes as the system responds to climate change and management pressures.  This will involve developing a marsh evolution model that responds to forecast changes in sedimentation and erosion along shorelines, and a model that can forecast property owner management decisions in response to changing conditions. With these models we will describe probable future changes in shorescape characteristics based on several sea level rise scenarios. The environmental consequence of changes in Bay shorescapes will be determined through a series of field investigations describing the ecological functions provided by natural shorelines and those provided by “living shorelines” the widely recommended erosion management option that incorporates some man-made marsh into the erosion protection structure. Because shorescape setting may matter, we will investigate natural marsh and living shoreline functions along a gradient of rural to urban environments. Synthesis of the foregoing information will allow evaluation of the environmental outcomes under probable system trajectories assuming current management practices, and under more aggressive application of living shorelines for erosion abatement. The governance framework (laws and policies) affecting property owner decisions will be assessed to complete the characterization of all elements in the shorescape SES. This will allow a final analysis that describes the relative importance of various interactions between the Bay system, shoreline resources (marshes), resource users (property owners), and governance of resource usage (local and state policy makers and resource managers). Knowing this will help us to more precisely determine how to maximize ecosystem service provision in Virginia moving forward.

Summary of Social Science Investigations:

The goal is to evaluate the degree to which current studies are providing comprehensive coverage of essential parts of the human elements in the system, priority needs for additional information (and the appropriate methods), and emergent understandings related to primary objective of understanding/forecasting shoreline management decision making under future scenarios.

Summary of Natural Science Investigations:

The goal is to evaluate capacity to answer questions regarding relative performance of ecological functions between natural marshes and living shorelines, consequences of sea level rise on cumulative shorescape functions; and needs for additional information.