Skip to Content
MIT News: 77 Mass Ave

Defending shorelines

Marsh plants provide significant protection to coastal areas threatened by climate change. An MIT analysis shows how it works.

February 23, 2022
marsh grass

Marsh plants can play a major role in mitigating the damage to the world’s shorelines as sea levels rise and storm surges increase. Now an MIT study provides more specifics about how these protective benefits work under real-world conditions shaped by waves and currents.

The study, which combined mathematical modeling with laboratory experiments using simulated plants in a large wave tank, reveals how the effects are shaped by the different types of plants that grow near coastlines and the complex interactions of currents and waves.

“When you go to a marsh, you often will see that the plants are arranged in zones,” says Heidi Nepf, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. As the zones progress, the plants become stiffer and leafier, which makes them more effective at absorbing wave energy. And once established, the marsh plants provide a positive feedback cycle that helps to stabilize and even build up these delicate coastal lands.

The modeling done in this research could help planners know just how much marshland, with what types of plants, would be needed to provide the desired level of protection. It also provides a way to quantify the value provided by marshes, Nepf says. “It could allow you to more accurately say, ‘Forty meters of marsh will reduce waves this much and therefore will reduce overtopping of your levee by this much.’ Someone could use that to say, ‘I’m going to save this much money over the next 10 years if I reduce flooding by maintaining this marsh.’ It might help generate some political motivation for restoration efforts.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.