The Value of Coastal Areas: What is Shore Road Doing for You?

Shore Road Sanctuary is an eight-acre nature preserve. It features a salt marsh, grassland and wet meadow that is very often partially submerged by water. As you walk there, you may notice birds hidden amongst the grasses and fiddler crabs scuttling along the beach. You might even get lucky and spot a horseshoe crab pulling itself along the sand in shallow waters. A community of prickly pear cactus nursery grows alongside the trail and milkweed plants in the pollinator garden offer a home to the larvae of monarch butterfly. But this preserve does a lot more than provide a habitat for these organisms.

Firstly, one of the most important aspects of coastal settings such as this is their role in keeping the water clean. Shore Road Sanctuary is located alongside Cold Spring Harbor, which, in addition to being the home and feeding area of numerous fish, birds and mammals, is a popular boating and water recreation site. All of these species, humans included, depend on the water in the harbor being clean. Natural settings like Shore Road act as buffers between the harbor and sources of pollution like streets and lawns. When it rains, the stormwater will fall in areas like a suburban neighborhood and drain out, eventually to the ocean. As the water drains, it picks up pollutants and carries them along its journey. However, as the water makes its way through Shore Road, the plants in the grassland act to soak up the water and filter out some of those pollutants, preventing them from reaching the nearby harbor.

One of the pollutants removed by the grassland plants and the salt marsh is nitrogen. Nitrogen is commonly found in fertilizers used on lawns, as well as in car exhaust. Though it is the most common element in the atmosphere, nitrogen when found in the water can cause harmful algal blooms that destroy aquatic ecosystems. High concentrations of nitrogen in our water supply can also cause birth defects in humans. Plants that are generally submerged in water can actually use nitrogen in the process of respiration in place of oxygen and return the nitrogen to the atmosphere. This process is most pronounced in shallow marshes submerged most of the time. Shore Road is coastal, but if you look at the sands near the low tide line, you’ll notice that they tend to be dark and more like mud. This is an indication that there isn’t much oxygen there and is a good sign that the nearby grasses are helping to remove nitrogen from the area.

These dark muddy sands are also indicative of high carbon storage. Marshes and other wetlands actually store more carbon than rainforests. Though it is important to preserve many different types of ecosystems, wetlands like Shore Road have some of the highest potential to help combat climate change. The more coastline that is lost to development, the smaller the world’s carbon storage potential is.

Another two-fold impact of Shore Road occurs through the process of chemical weathering. Rocks break up in two ways: physically as wind and water wear away at them, and chemically as acid rain reacts with the rocks it encounters. This process actually helps to deacidify the water in the harbor and contributes to carbon storage. Ions released into the water by chemically weathered rocks bond with loose hydrogen atoms (which are responsible for making things acidic), causing the acidity of the water to decrease. Other ions released by this process contain carbon from acid rain and are used by organisms to build shells and are eventually buried in the sand. In this way, chemical weathering draws carbon from the atmosphere and returns it to the earth over a period of hundreds of thousands of years.

Areas such as Shore Road are critically important in providing an array of benefits to mankind. Their preservation is essential to ensuring that we have clean, safe water for ourselves and for other species with whom we share the planet. They also play a major role in effectively responding to and reversing anthropogenic climate change.

The next time you visit Shore Road, you may decide to think about it differently.