University of Newcastle researchers have assisted in a global breakthrough that will help save intertidal wetlands from the impact of rising sea levels caused by climate change.
The researchers, who worked with the University of NSW's water research laboratory, devised a system of 'smart gates' in the Kooragang Island wetland to regulate tidal inundation.
The Kooragang wetland, which is part of a broader internationally significant Hunter wetlands, is about 7 kilometres upstream of the mouth of the Hunter River.
A series of levees and internal drains were installed in the area early last century to prevent tidal waters entering the wetland.
Rehabilitation works in the early 2000s resulted in the restoration of tidal flow, however, a significant amount of saltmarsh had been lost as a result of the earlier works.
"In all, these actions resulted in a site that under natural conditions encouraged non-saltmarsh vegetation expansion and was not suitable for saltmarsh growth despite it historically being an important saltmarsh location for migratory shorebirds," the study, published in the journal Nature, says.
"As such, the site was experiencing deeper tidal inundation patterns than desired, similar to that experienced with sea level rise, hence, making it an ideal location to trial the Tidal Replicate Method."
The installation of smart gates resulted in the establishment of saltmarsh over a three year period, resulting in the return of migratory shorebirds.
An estimated 16 per cent of the global surface area covered by intertidal flats was lost due to human activity and variable sea level rise between 1984 and 2016.
"The already accelerating rates of sea level rise pose a growing threat to intertidal wetlands and studies predict the submergence of 20-78 per cent of worldwide coastal wetlands by 2100," the paper says.
The research team believe the technology used at the Kooragang wetlands can be applied to other wetlands threatened by sea-level rise across the planet.
"If applied globally, this method can protect high value coastal wetlands with similar environmental settings, including over 1,184,000 hectares of Ramsar coastal wetlands," the study paper says.
"This equates to a saving of US$230billion in ecosystem services per year. This solution can play an important role in the global effort to conserve wetlands under accelerating sea level rise."
It also highlights climate change as a risk to biodiversity and the size of future populations within the park.
"Species most at risk are those unable to migrate or adapt, particularly those with small population sizes or with slow growth rates," the plan says.
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