An insurance policy for the salt flats of coastal Georgia? Environmentalists are looking into it

Cars. Pets. Houses. Health. An insurance policy can cover many things in life (including life itself). But what about the environment — particularly the salt marshes?

A view of the Cumberland Island National Seashore in southeast Georgia, home to more than 9,000 acres of salt flats. Conservationists are studying whether insurance policies can help preserve an important ecosystem. (Image credit: National Park Service)

In addition to their ability to protect against flood damage, limit erosion, and filter water, these fragile ecosystems of meandering streams and marsh meadows—a hallmark of coastal Georgia—provide many services to society.

“If we can quantify that, then we can really start to explore innovative funding solutions to protect and restore this marsh — one of which could potentially be insurance,” said Liz Fly, an ocean conservationist with The Nature Conservancy.

The nonprofit is collaborating with the University of Georgia on a new study to assess the value of salt marshes and determine whether insurance can protect these protective shorelines, which themselves could use some protection: According to The Nature Conservancy, experts estimate that 70 percent of salt marshes have already been lost. primarily through development.

Factor in future threats from sea-level rise caused by climate change, and the research takes on added urgency.

“Looking at this project, it’s about how can our coastal marshes continue to perform this important, critically important function of mitigating risk during storms in the future as a nature-based solution to this climate change?” said Ashby Worley, who leads The Nature Conservancy’s coastal climate adaptation efforts.

Environmental insurance may seem like a new concept, but in recent years it has been used on coral reefs along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Like salt flats, reefs break heavy waves. But, Fly said, “salt flats are not quite the same as coral reefs in terms of exfoliating and sticking a piece of coral back onto a damaged reef immediately after a storm surge.”

Thus, an insurance policy for salt marshes could strengthen the existing ecosystem “more in a proactive sense than a reactive sense,” said Matt Bilsky, a University of Georgia engineering professor who is involved in the study.

It could also finance the creation of new, artificial salt marshes designed to mimic nature, Bilski said: “We have to have a certain type of sediment. We need to know where it should be placed to get the maximum benefit, what types of plants should be planted there, [to] make sure it’s not just going to go away in a couple of years or 10 years or something — make sure it has a lifetime.”

Of course, this all depends on whether it makes economic sense.

“The insurance industry — their own interests must be served,” said Yukiko Hashida, an environmental economist at the University of Georgia who worked on the study. “They have their shareholders and stakeholders. I’m interested in what they need, what they get out of it.”

It will take some time to find out whether the salt marshes will be a worthwhile risk for the insurance industry, as the study will take two years. But there may be options outside the private sector.

For example, in the case of Mexican coral reefs, insurance is managed by a public trust. And unlike the usual type of insurance, which pays out only when something is catastrophically damaged, the so-called parametric insurance is used here; when certain softer parameters are reached—in this case, wind speed exceeds 100 knots—payments begin.

“We don’t know for sure what that insurance will look like, so that’s part of that feasibility study,” Hashida said.

If insurance is deemed eligible, the researchers hope to apply their findings across the country. But it all starts in Georgia, which UGA estimates is home to a third of all salt flats on the East Coast.

“We have a lot to learn,” Worley said. “We have a structure that is built on what [The Nature Conservancy] participated in Florida with mangrove systems and Latin America with coral reefs. So, could the Georgia Salt Flats play a similar role with insurance? We’ll see.”

This story comes to Reporter Newspapers / Atlanta Intown in partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

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