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Flights Spotlight King Tides

Water moving on salt marsh of Drift Creek Alsea River, Oregon. Site of major restoration work. image: The Wetlands Conservancy/LightHawk

Something happens each year that may provide a fleeting glimpse into the future. This year, LightHawk and The Wetlands Conservancy teamed up to document this phenomenon from the air.

Extreme high tides, called “king tides,” occur around the new moon when the moon is closest to the Earth. Scientists think images of the king tides may show us what will be the new normal for high tides as sea levels are expected to rise up to 3 feet in the next 50 to 100 years. The Wetlands Conservancy was interested in this climate change preview and especially how Oregon’s estuaries would respond.

With only about two hours to capture the king tide in action, the Wetlands Conservancy would need a small army to cover the wetlands hugging the north and central Oregon coast. They opted for air support instead.

Volunteer pilot Jane Nicolai donated one of the two flights to capture images of the king tides. image: Michelle Alvarado/LightHawk

LightHawk designed flights, and local pilots Jane Nicolai and Scott Brewster stepped up to help the wetlands scientists capture high-resolution aerial photos of the flooded areas before the waters receded. The images and information gathered are being used for the benefit of not just TWC but also partner groups, as the flights covered sites managed, restored, and monitored by a variety of organizations.

Near-complete submersion at King Tide of Cox Island, Siuslaw River. This diverse area boasts mud flats, salt marsh, and sitka spruce. image: The Wetlands Conservancy/LightHawk

Estuaries are the mixing zones of freshwater and saltwater, they occur where our waterways meet the ocean. These rich feeding grounds are essential for juvenile salmon, oyster, crab, shorebirds and other marine life. As the flight photos demonstrate, if sea level continues to rise, salt marshes and mud flats will flood more often and at greater depths, which may directly impact the life cycles and use of these areas by fish and wildlife.

Like kidneys, wetlands absorb, filter and recirculate our water. In addition, they provide critical fish and wildlife habitat to many iconic Oregon species. This image of Youngs River, Clatsop County shows the large scale conversion of estuary to agriculture, an intact estuary, and a restoration project. image: The Wetlands Conservancy/LightHawk

Understanding and visualizing these potential changes allows scientists, landowners and the community to begin planning for the future. This may mean preparing for the prospective loss of habitat, the impact on commercial fisheries, and regular flooding of roads and properties.

Estuaries provide opportunities to enjoy wildlife such as this heron. image: Mike Rivers

GIS analyst John Bauer remarked after the flight, “The photos vividly demonstrate the estuary restoration successes, and areas to consider for wetland conservation when considering impacts of sea-level-rise in the 21st century.” He added, “We could not afford such flights on our own.”

The king tide photos are being used to update management plans which serve as The Wetland Conservancy’s road map guiding conservation activities for the next five years. The photos also help identify and monitor areas that will be influenced by changes in tidal heights and salinity.

We may speculate about what the future holds for our environment, but it’s certain that aerial images showing flooded estuaries are a powerful tool to encourage community dialogue on the future of our estuaries and the plants, fish and wildlife that depend on them.

Did you Know?
Oregon’s 22 major estuaries are ecologically essential for many fish and wildlife species, including salmon, herring, flounder, crabs, oysters, clams, wading birds, ducks, geese, shorebirds and harbor seals. The vibrant coastline we cherish in Oregon owes much to these estuarine habitats that allow for reproduction, rearing, resting and foraging.

Originally published on National Geographic NewsWatch