Category Archives: Science

Understanding Coastal Climate Vulnerability

Our coasts are home to valuable habitats and beloved species. To protect them from climate change and understand how vulnerable these important regions are, Mass Audubon’s Climate Adaptation Ecologist, Dr. Danielle Perry, PhD, laces up her work boots and jumps headfirst into cordgrass and salt water.

Joppa Flats Education Center © Jorge Galvez

Why Study Vulnerability

When a habitat is vulnerable to climate change, it means that it is at an elevated risk of suffering from climate change’s impacts, like sea level and temperature rise. Analyzing a habitat’s vulnerability is critical to understanding how well equipped it is to withstand these impacts, which then allows us to urgently act to ensure their protection both now and in the future.

Dr. Perry’s initial study is a trial for a series of vulnerability assessments that analyze the resilience of Mass Audubon properties to the various impacts of climate change. These first assessments examined the effects of sea level rise at five properties: Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats, Rough Meadows, Eastern Point, Barnstable Great Marsh, and Wellfleet Bay wildlife sanctuaries.

Breaking Down Methodology

Dr. Danielle Perry, PhD

First, with the expertise of sanctuary staff and other scientists, Dr. Perry assigned the resources within each sanctuary a numerical score based on their value to wildlife, the sanctuary, and surrounding communities. Resources ranged from hard infrastructure (man-made) to natural environments (like salt marsh habitats).

Then, she used data available by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to project the effect that sea level rise will have on these resources by 2030 and 2050.

Finally, Dr. Perry supplemented her projections with real-time field surveys that looked at the current conditions of salt marsh habitats, since salt marshes serve an important role in increasing our resilience to climate change. She observed cues that demonstrated how resilient the habitat currently is, its health, and how easily it could migrate (or move more landward) as sea levels rise.

The Results

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellfleet had stable salt marsh conditions, with some evidence of disturbances like crab burrows that degrade the marsh’s peat. However, this site is projected to be the most impacted by sea level rise out of all five sanctuaries.

Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary in Gloucester showed similar results: a salt marsh with better current conditions than the other sanctuaries, but significant projected sea level rise impact, right after Wellfleet Bay.

Dr. Perry’s boot reveals a low spot in the high marsh – a sign of peat degradation at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

Then came Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, one that stood out to Dr. Perry for a completely different reason than the previous two. This site’s current conditions were among the most degraded: with low climate resilience and an ecosystem health score of five (out of 10).

Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Rowley is a little more prepared for sea level rise, with moderate climate resilience and a high landward migration potential. Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable mirrored this finding, but with even less severe projected sea level rise impacts. This is because most of Barnstable Great Marsh’s infrastructure is located upland, more out of reach of rising tides.

Where We Go From Here

Dr. Perry’s preliminary results, while part of a pilot study, show us that even though all the sites will be affected by sea level rise, each has different levels of resilience. These findings will allow Mass Audubon to prioritize those sites most in need of urgent action. Eventually, we will use this data to inform land use and restoration project decisions at each of the studied locations. Our goal is to increase the resilience of our wildlife sanctuaries and reduce the vulnerability of the surrounding communities.

Learning STEMS from Nature

Children have wonderful imaginations and an innate desire to explore the world around them through direct experience, and the natural world provides endless opportunities for exploration and discovery, questioning and investigation.

Spending time outdoors is often thought of as recreation but so much learning in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) can happen at the same time.

Through play and exploration, children in our early childhood programs practice and build confidence in core science attitudes and skills, including:

  • curiosity by asking lots of questions because the natural world provides endless opportunities for wonder
  • creativity and inventiveness through the construction of animal homes with twigs and pine needles or imaging the life cycle of the dragonfly larvae to adult though the dramatic play at the pond’s edge.
  • persistence as they collect maple seeds on a walk for experiments in aerodynamics back in the classroom
  • critical thinking through the open-endedness of learning in and with natural materials by observation, asking questions, investigations, re-thinking things and asking more questions.

By listening to the different bird songs in spring, noting the arrival of a dragonfly larvae in the pond, chasing butterflies in a field, timing the length of time it takes a maple leaf to drop to the forest floor, or carefully noting the shape of winter’s first snowflake, children gain these documented benefits while participating as a part of the cycles and systems of nature, all the while deepening their connection, appreciation, and sense of stewardship for the environment.

At Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries, STEM learning is a part of everything we do. Every one of our school programs is designed to integrate with the Massachusetts State Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework, but our commitment goes even deeper.

Hundreds of classroom educators attend professional development programs run by Mass Audubon each year to increase their comfort with integrating nature play and learning into traditional preschool and elementary education curriculum. And through our nature preschools, camps, and school programs, we reach tens of thousands of children annually.

Beyond the traditional educational setting, STEM thinking is reflected in how we invite people to approach the environment and how we manage our sanctuaries. Scientific practices and monitoring guide the stewardship of our properties, with scientific data collection taking place year-round related to breeding bird activity, wildlife populations, the spread (and control) of invasive species, and many more research opportunities. We embrace evidence-based thinking in all we do, and we invite you to join us in exploring how learning STEMs from nature.

Get outside where every day can become a STEM day! Visit a Mass Audubon sanctuary near you to explore on your own or through one of our thousands of hands-on educational programs.

– Kris Scopinich (Mass Audubon Director of Education)
and Renata Pomponi (Sanctuary Director, Drumlin Farm)

Science Beyond the March

On Saturday, April 22, Mass Audubon staff and supporters joined thousands of others in Boston, Worcester, and Pittsfield to stand up for the central role of science in informing public discourse.

Sound science is key to so much of what Mass Audubon does on a daily basis, from educating kids in schools to research on changing habitats.

Here are just a few examples of what Mass Audubon is currently doing to continue our science-based conservation efforts:

Click on links above to learn more about these projects. And please support our work so we can continue to protect Massachusetts for people and wildlife!