An insurance policy for the salt marshes of the Georgian coast? Environmentalists consider it

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Cars. Pets. Houses. Health. There are many things in life that an insurance policy can cover (including life itself). But what about the environment, specifically the salt marshes?

A view of the Cumberland Island National Seashore in southeast Georgia, home to over 9,000 acres of salt marsh. Conservationists are investigating whether insurance policies can help preserve the important ecosystem. (Credit: National Park Service)

Between their ability to protect against flood damage, limit erosion, and filter water, these fragile ecosystems of meandering streams and swampy meadows—a hallmark of coastal Georgia—provide a plethora of services to society.

“If we can quantify this, that’s when we can really start exploring innovative financing solutions to protect and restore this marsh – one of them potentially being insurance,” said Liz. Fly, ocean conservation specialist at The Nature Conservancy.

The nonprofit is teaming up with the University of Georgia on a new study to assess the value of salt marshes and whether insurance could shore up these protective shorelines — which themselves could benefit from some Protection: According to The Nature Conservancy, experts estimate that 70% of salt marshes have already been lost, mostly due to development.

Factor in future threats from sea level rise caused by climate change, and the study took on added urgency.

“Looking at this project, it’s about how can our coastal marshes continue to perform this important and critical service of risk reduction during storms in the future as a nature-based solution to this climate change?” said Ashby Worley, who leads The Nature Conservancy’s coastal climate adaptation efforts.

Environmental insurance may seem like a new concept, but it has been used in recent years for coral reefs along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Like salt marshes, reefs break up big waves. But, Fly said, “salt marshes aren’t quite the same as coral reefs, in terms of depleting and re-gluing a piece of coral to a damaged reef right after a storm surge.”

So a salt marsh insurance policy could strengthen the existing ecosystem “in a more proactive than reactive sense,” said Matt Bilskie, a University of Georgia engineering professor involved in the study.

It could also fund the creation of new man-made salt marshes designed to mimic nature, Bilskie said: “We have to have some type of sediment. You have to know where to place it to get the maximum benefit from it, what type of plants to plant there, [to] make sure it’s not just going to fade away in a few years or 10 years or something – make sure it has a certain lifespan.

Of course, it all comes down to whether it makes economic sense.

“The insurance industry — their own interests must be respected,” said Yukiko Hashida, an environmental economist at the University of Georgia who is working on the study. “They have their own shareholders and stakeholders. I’m interested in what they need, what they get out of it.

It will take some time to determine if salt marshes would be valid risks for the insurance industry, as the study is expected to last two years. But there may be options outside the private sector.

For example, in the case of Mexican coral reefs, the insurance is managed by a public trust. And unlike your typical type of insurance – which only pays out when something is catastrophically damaged – it uses what’s called parametric insurance; when certain softer parameters are reached – in this case the wind speed exceeds 100 knots – payouts begin.

“We don’t know for sure what that insurance will look like, so it’s part of that feasibility study,” Hashida said.

If insurance is seen as a good choice, the researchers hope to apply their findings across the country. But it all starts with Georgia, home to about a third of all East Coast salt marshes, according to the UGA.

“We have a lot to learn,” Worley said. “We have a framework that is built, based on what [The Nature Conservancy] has been involved in Florida with mangrove systems and in Latin America with coral reefs. So, can the salt marshes of Georgia play a similar role with insurance? We will see.”

This story comes to Reporter Newspapers/Atlanta Intown through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

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