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The Ecological Ladder

Updated: May 21, 2021

By Libby Hill, Texas

On Galveston Island, my family is blessed to mark seasons by the dancing of the Sandhill Cranes, the species of birds fishing in the marshland off our front porch, and the plant life blooming in nearby nature preserves. The coastal environment is indeed diverse but exists in a delicately intertwined balance. Each rung on the coastal ecosystem’s ladder has to be strong and sturdy to support the next level of coastal life, so when the bottom rung is compromised, it has a negative impact on the entire ladder.

To illustrate this, I’ll turn to one of my favorite restoration projects—the replanting of marshland in the areas where our coast has suffered erosion. When heavy winds blow through, the waves generated crash into the shoreline and physically wear away at the coast. The marshland helps by absorbing these blows and to anchor the sand and dirt around it to protect from the effects of erosion and keep the water clear and keep our homes protected from storm surges. Replanting is muddy, adventurous, and physically active, which is my kind of fun, and it strengthens the bottom rung of the metaphorical ladder in that ecosystem.

Marsh grass provides a habitat for small “bait fish,” crabs, and water bugs to find shade or feel protected. They, in turn, draw the presence of larger fish that feed on smaller fish, which then attract fishing birds and other larger aquatic life. Without this marshy habitat, the larger predators we have grown so accustomed to watching from our front porch would leave the area, and perhaps even the island, in search of better feeding grounds.

While restoration work can be fun and have a positive impact on the environment, the ultimate goal is preservation. If marsh grass is the bottom rung of my local bay’s ecosystem, the atmosphere is the rails to which the rungs are attached. The ocean is what we call a “carbon reservoir,” because it absorbs and buffers the carbon dioxide released by the burning of carbon fuels for industry and transportation. With deforestation events like the brush fires in Australia and the clearing of the Amazon for agriculture, we have fewer trees to process carbon dioxide, and the ocean takes a greater hit. Unfortunately the ocean’s buffer system can only accommodate a certain amount of carbon emissions each year, and when we meet or exceed that threshold the ocean becomes acidic. Aquatic plants like marsh grasses don’t grow well in acidic environments, and neither does the majority of marine life. So if the ocean’s composition changes, these ecosystems, along with our homes, are endangered.

Living in such an industrialized world, we don’t often think of humans as being part of an ecosystem, but our actions dramatically impact the Earth. No matter where you live, you have the power to positively affect and preserve coastal ecosystems worldwide by reducing your carbon footprint. How? Carpool or use public transportation, sign up for programs like Jetset Offset if you’re a frequent flyer, purchase energy efficient appliances, support sustainable companies, go meatless a few times a week, curb your Amazon habit and shop locally, hit the thrift stores, plant a garden, or plant some marsh grass with me! The opportunities to reduce your carbon footprint are numerous and the effect is huge. Let’s make preservation a priority and restoration a rare necessity.

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