Why I Strike for Climate as a Salt Marsh Ecologist

Grass sprouts out of the black muck underneath a huge blue sky. The land is flat, very flat, so that your field of vision is filled with blue and green and blue — blue sky, green grass, blue water. The water is salty, the air is a little salty, and every creature that lives here is a bit salty.

This is a salt marsh. A coastal land feature, made of sediment held in place by grass roots, submerged twice daily by the salty ocean tides. Maybe you’ve never heard of this ecosystem or ever seen one, but they have a global distribution and they’re all along the United States coasts. More than 75% of fish, shrimp, and crab species need salt marshes during their life cycle. And just by existing, salt marshes greatly reduce the risk of flooding in coastal cities. Just by existing, salt marshes store carbon in their roots, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

The salt marsh seems simple when you look at it from a distance. But I’m a salt marsh ecologist, so I spend much of my time in the salt marsh looking down and up close. Between the sediment and the grass stalks, I easily find dozens of fiddler crabs darting out of burrows, hundreds of coffee bean snails lurking in the mud, and millions of plant hoppers bouncing stem to stem. Thousands of species, from microbes to insects to fish to birds, have been identified at this New Jersey salt marsh that I am working at for my PhD.

I’ve only been working on my PhD for two years. I’m pretty new to the science of salt marshes. But my PhD advisor has been studying this New Jersey salt marsh for fifteen years. When we trek through the salt marsh together, she remarks to me about how she’s noticed changes. She says, “See this bamboo pole? I left it there after an experiment. The pole marks where the edge of the grass patch used to be… now the pole shows me how much smaller the grass patch is now.” She says, “See those ponds? They only formed a couple of years ago… those ponds used to be grass.” 

My PhD advisor says she can see the effects of sea level rise at our salt marsh research site. She’s been working there for 15 years. In those 15 years, over 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been pumped into Earth’s atmosphere. In those 15 years, New Jersey sea level rise has been three inches, and in the next fifteen years it’s predicted to rise six more inches, a rise that would put almost all of our salt marsh under water. Our salt marsh isn’t just changing due to climate change, it’s being totally lost.

And this is where I confess that before I started studying the salt marsh, I didn’t take climate change seriously. I thought, bulldozing nature, that’s a problem. I thought, air and water pollution and environmental racism that goes with it, that’s a problem. I thought, single use plastic! That’s a problem. I used to think climate change wasn’t urgent, I thought it wasn’t affecting people yet. But now, as I’m studying a sinking salt marsh next to a coastal city, I see with my own eyes that climate change is urgent. It’s a problem happening now. It’s the problem connected to all of our other problems and making it all worse.

I’m a salt marsh ecologist, and now I’m salty at these fossil fuel executives, these politicians, these so-called leaders who have had the evidence about carbon emissions and climate change for longer than I’ve been alive. I’m salty that so many scientists before me have done a lot of work, published a lot of reports, and advised a lot of leaders, and yet global carbon emissions are still increasing each year.

But what I’ve learned from this history is that this isn’t a moment where science will solve this. This is a moment for the people to take back power, a moment for our climate movement. This is the moment to disrupt business-as-usual and establish a new normal for living with our planet, based on justice, dignity and respect for all life. This is why I strike for climate. I strike for the people who want a livable future. 

And, I strike for the salt marshes.

Jewel originally told this story at the Storytelling to Regenerate event on September 18, 2019.

Jewel Tomasula
Jewel Tomasula

Jewel Tomasula is a Biology PhD student at Georgetown University, researching ecological resilience in the salt marsh system. She is a member of 500 Women Scientists. Though she was raised as a Texan, she has made herself at home in the Washington, DC area. Read more from Jewel on Twitter (@JewelTomasula) or on her blog, jeweltheecologist.weebly.com.

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