The following is excerpted from “Anticipating the Rising Tide: Conway Alums Address the Coastal Impacts of Climate Change” by Mollie Babize ’84, from the 2013 issue of con’text magazine.

“In just this one estuary, we’ve had millions of dollars of damage this winter. Coastlines have retreated to ten feet, stairways are gone, plantings are destroyed. Much of the damage is not even known yet. Seth Wilkinson ’99 is no stranger to storm surge impact. His firm, Wilkinson Ecological Design, is based in Orleans, Massachusetts, a mid-Cape Cod community whose summer residents have not yet returned. “Coastal property owners will have disappointing news when they return this summer,” he says.

Coastal stabilization is a part of every project Wilkinson Ecological undertakes, as they anticipate a rise in sea levels and more frequent superstorms. A number of factors are linked to climate change, including what Seth calls a “slacking drift current” in the North Atlantic, due to supercooled water coming off the Greenland ice shelf. The drift current is like a ridgeline in the ocean that fans out over many miles as the greater volume of water slows the current. He has seen the impact of this increase in water volume in the protected estuaries of the Cape.

Designed and installed by Wilkinson Ecological Design in 2010, this bioengineering project was severely tested in winter 2012 by a series of high-intensity storms not seen in decades on Cape Cod. Despite widespread and sever erosion in many nearby locations, only modest repairs were needed in spring 2013, demonstrating that plant-focused bioengineering effectively supports natural processes as they struggle to adapt to rapidly changing tidal ranges and frequency of intense storms. Photo: Wilkinson Ecological Design

“Even halophytic communities [those adapted to saline conditions] are struggling,” Seth reports. Vast areas of high-tide bush, a succulent shrub in the aster family that grows in the saline soils of salt marshes and shorelines, are dying, he reports, either flooded out or just exposed to too much salt. The salt marshes are leapfrogging—low salt marsh plants jumping upland of high marsh communities—in an effort to stay ahead of rising sea levels.

Designing for coastal stability while restoring ecological systems and habitat is not easy, says Seth Wilkinson. These are dynamic systems, and the coastline will change. But despite the challenges of winter 2013, Seth says their plant-focused restoration efforts have weathered the storms well, where mechanical fasteners have failed. “It’s encouraging to see,” he says. “There is need for some repairs and maintenance, but that is normal for bioengineering projects.” In every project Wilkinson Ecological undertakes on Cape Cod and the islands, Seth anticipates the migration of salt marshes, inserting supplemental plantings of native grasses. “The marshes need to keep moving, just like sharks,” he says. “They won’t make it if they come up against a seawall, so we need to create alternatives to seawalls, a more natural shoreline that continues to provide a means to hold sediment and provides them someplace to go.”

Although he has an undergraduate education in environmental studies, Seth credits his Conway education with a larger understanding of natural systems. The process of site analysis, understanding the processes and all the different forces at work, underlies his work to this day. In addition, he cites the experience dealing with municipal boards and citizen groups on the larger team projects as essential training. “Massachusetts has rigorous regulatory processes which present challenging hurdles for every project we undertake.”

Seth encourages more Conway alums to pursue work in ecological restoration, and in fact he has hired several. His firm keeps growing and, even so, is having a hard time keeping up with all the projects. It’s a great field, he says, full of opportunity for those who want to help coastal communities prepare for the challenges of a changing climate.

Seth Wilkinson, center, explains the process of planting coconut fiber logs with native salt marsh grasses to the Conway class of 2013 during a site visit.