Study: Thousands of acres of MD farmland facing saltwater intrusion
Thursday, September 28, 2023
Researchers have found the amount of land affected by saltwater intrusion on the Delmarva Peninsula has dramatically increased in recent years.
Scientists from the University of Maryland, the University of Delaware and George Washington University used aerial and satellite imagery, and found between 2011 and 2017, visible salt patches almost doubled and more than 20,000 acres of farmland had been converted to marsh. Researchers estimate the associated economic loss is between $39 million and $100 million.
Becky Epanchin-Niell, associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland and the study's co-author, said farmers are responding to saltwater intrusion in different ways.
"Some farmers are continuing to crop and are going to just keep trying to farm for as long as they can. Others have tried switching to different crops," Epanchin-Niell outlined. "Certain crops are much more susceptible to the salinization and the inundation than others. Others have abandoned the cropland, and others have actually engaged in different conservation programs."
The paper was published over the summer in the journal Nature Sustainability. Epanchin-Niell noted researchers are now using the study results to attempt to predict areas where saltwater intrusion will next occur.
While sea level rise hits low-lying coastal areas first, there are also impacts to groundwater as well as farmlands connected to the coast via drainage ditches.
Epanchin-Niell pointed out the more northern portions of the Chesapeake Bay have lower salinity given the influence of rivers draining into the bay, so different areas will see differing levels of salinity even with a constant rise in sea level.
She added to prolong productivity of coastal farmlands, researchers are studying what kinds of crops are suitable.
"We also have a lot of work done looking at how different crops respond to saltwater intrusion and looking at how farmers have, and can in the future, adapt to saltwater intrusion," Epanchin-Niell emphasized.
Epanchin-Niell stressed researchers are also looking at developing methods to manage the transition with an eye toward the long term.
"If you abandon the farmland, and it became encroached with lots of invasive species, that's going to have fewer benefits than for example, if there's a more planned transition, where perhaps there's restoration with different wetland species that help with the inland migration of wetlands, which are also being impacted by sea level rise," Epanchin-Niell explained.
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