Gulf of Mexico
Courtesy UF/IFAS UF/IFAS personnel tending to the reef ball structures in Cedar Key shoreline.

FL - Cedar Key’s living shorelines show study success after hurricane impact

In the days after Hurricane Idalia made landfall, a brief camera sweep of the Cedar Key landscape gave a glimpse of hope for two viewers of The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore, watching from their inland evacuation spots.

A stretch of beach, blanketed by green plants, came into view behind the meteorologist.

“It’s still there!”

Mark Clark, a University of Florida associate professor in the soil, water, and ecosystem sciences department, said he and colleague Savanna Barry, a UF/IFAS Extension regional specialized Florida Sea Grant agent, began texting back and forth after the sighting of one of their project sites.

Barry and Clark lead several outreach efforts from the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station (NCBS) in downtown Cedar Key, the same fortress that sheltered Cantore’s team during Idalia. One of their larger collaborations is a trio of “living shorelines” projects, a natural coastal resilience strategy first implemented in the small coastal community in 2017.

“This was the first big test for these living shorelines,” Clark said, explaining that 2016’s Hurricane Hermine was a driving force behind jumpstarting the projects. “We had no guarantees the plants would make it, let alone come out somewhat unscathed.”

As the 2023 hurricane season comes to a close, the living shorelines of Cedar Key should be considered one of the year’s success stories.

In the span of a few hours on Aug. 30, Hurricane Idalia brought a record storm surge to the tiny coastal town, and the water level peaked at 6.89 feet above the typical highest tide level, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the shorelines largely thrived, with Clark and Barry collecting data that proved, among other highlights, that the installations reduced the wave energy coming ashore.

Even where the inundation of floodwaters damaged the natural barriers, new growth has already begun – echoing the resilience of the Cedar Key community these shorelines protect.

So, what is a living shoreline?

The name itself captures the intent of these natural coastal resilience installations: Marsh plants that are adaptable to the tidal highs and lows, sturdy mangroves, upland grasses typically seen on sand dunes across Florida, and even offshore structures that attract oyster colonization.

“The goal of these living shorelines is to stabilize and prevent further erosion,” said Barry, who was behind the Living Shoreline Master Plan for Cedar Key unveiled in 2019. “We do this by restoring some of the natural barriers that we know are adapted to life along the coast. The more natural barriers we can restore, the less reliance we should have on ‘hardened’ shorelines, like seawalls, that also protect infrastructure but at the expense of natural habitats.”

Clark is also quick to note the “self-healing” qualities of a living shoreline: “A seawall can’t repair itself.”

Evidence for this recovery ability can be found in the Airport Road project, where an approximately 20-meter section of the mid-marsh saltmeadow cordgrass and panic grass species had turned brown and had some dieback in the weeks after Idalia. By November, new sprouts had emerged, restarting the process to bolster the shoreline by the next hurricane season.

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