RFF Initiative

Using Natural Infrastructure to Build Resilience to Climate Change

RFF researchers are analyzing how land-use decisions impact flood vulnerability and inundation risks, and how strategic investments in nature can reduce risks and increase resilience to climate change.

Floods accounted for more lives lost and more property damage than any other natural disaster in the United States during the twentieth century, and can affect every region, whether coastal or inland, urban or rural. Most climate models predict that the frequency and severity of flooding will worsen. To build resilience in the face of flood risk, many communities in the United States are focusing on changing local land use in floodplains—in particular, investing in strategically placed “natural infrastructure”—to provide a buffer against climate-induced increases in flooding. But although natural infrastructure is appealing, many questions remain for effective implementation.

RFF researchers are working to address these questions:

  • How much land should be protected and which parcels should be targeted, particularly in a future world with more extreme precipitation events?
  • To what extent can changing land use achieve other benefits, such as protected habitats, improved water quality, and enhanced recreational opportunities?
  • How do communities balance flood protection with the other benefits—and costs—of natural infrastructure?
  • What climate adaptation policy tools do local governments have at their disposal for bringing about this land-use change?

For one part of this initiative, RFF researchers are focusing on reducing flood damages along the Meramec Greenway in St. Louis County, Missouri—the triangle formed by the Missouri, Mississippi, and Meramec Rivers where 16 percent of the county's land is in the 100-year floodplain.

  • An overview of the research project was presented at the Ninth Symposium on Policy and Socio-Economic Research at the American Meteorological Society annual meetings in February 2014.
  • This work is funded under a grant from the NOAA Climate Program Office, Climate and Societal Interactions Division, Sectoral Applications Research Program. It is also featured as a case study in NOAA’s US Climate Resilience Toolkit, a guide developed to help communities and businesses “through the process of planning and implementing resilience-building projects.”

Another part of the initiative focuses on the benefits of coastal protected areas and their role in climate adaptation. Researchers are creating a spatial inventory of protected lands in coastal areas along the eastern US seaboard, analyzing the institutional structures governing those lands and their ability to incorporate climate adaptation, identifying the range of ecosystem services provided by those lands, and cataloging the potential threats to these lands from climate change. The goal of this project is to provide a comprehensive and realistic inventory of the benefits from, and threats to, protected natural lands in coastal areas.

  • Initial findings were presented at a November 2014 conference, Restore America’s Estuaries Seventh National Summit on Coastal and Estuarine Restoration and Twenty-Fourth Biennual Meeting of the Coastal Society.