The power of the coast

Makadunyiswe Ngulube is studying how plant life can protect coastal Nova Scotia. Photo: Submitted

The climate crisis will transform our world — meet the researcher who is studying how nature can help protect Nova Scotia from what’s coming

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Makadunyiswe Ngulube moved to Canada in 2016 to pursue her environmental passion, including how to adapt to and mitigate climate change, while developing sustainably. 

Since completing an environmental science degree at Saint Mary’s University last autumn, Ngulube is currently pursuing a masters of science and applied science. When she began her studies, she didn’t know how she’d specialize. After seeing an advertisement for the Intertidal Coastal Sediment Transport Research Unit at the university, she applied, and was hired for a summer job.

From that experience, the topic of coastal restoration and nature-based solutions piqued Ngulube’s interest. As a research assistant, she did more reading on these topics, studying how vegetation can combat coastal erosion.

In the following interview, she offers her perspective on the climate crisis and why you should care, her current research, the power of knowledge, and why she’s optimistic about the future. 

Why should people care? “There are generations coming after us. That’s probably one of the things to think about, but people should care because with climate change, it’s not just an environmental issue. It could be an issue of injustice, inequality, social inequity, environmental racism, or so many issues that are tied to climate that people don’t realize. People should care because everything is connected.”

How coastal plants can help protect us: “I investigated the impact and interaction of vegetation on oncoming waves … I’m trying to assess whether a created marsh is still effective or not (at reducing erosion), and to quantify the protective and ecosystem services. The area that we’re working on is actually a piping plover critical habitat. We’re restoring that because those birds rely on that environment.” 

What she’s learning: “We want to find out how we can adapt to storms, what the coastline will look like in the next 10, 20, or 100 years, and whether there’s a way we can slow down the (erosion) process … When we understand the interaction of a vegetation with waves, it’s an easy way for us to start thinking about engineering solutions … (We want to) protect our coasts using nature, and this is where nature-based solutions come up.”

Environmental racism: “Certain policies are geared to, or not favourable towards, a certain group of people because of their race … One of the perfect examples, or maybe not perfect because there’s nothing perfect about environmental racism, is Flint, Michigan and how they didn’t have access to water because of the area they were in. They were Black people experiencing environmental racism — policies that are set to deprive them of a certain environmental benefit they should have a right to.”

Knowledge is power: “For Nova Scotia, this is some ground-breaking work because for years and years, there’s been diking and Acadian settlers were using that as a means of protection from flooding (in places like the Annapolis Valley, where dikes turned marsh to farmland). Now, we’re starting to see that we need those salt marshes because they can help to prevent flooding, improve water quality, sustain creatures, and provide carbon sequestration. Overall, this will be great for Nova Scotians to understand better what the coasts have to offer.”

What can regular people do? “We are dependent on nature and need to view ourselves as a part of it rather than apart. We should do it from a perspective of caring, nurturing, and giving rather than what can we get from it. The best we can give is our care for the planet.”

Optimism: “We hear the stories of gloom and doom, but I value opportunities like this because we can share our work and also share that there’s hope. I’m wary of also going into it with scare tactics … People should act from a place of knowledge and genuine interest. My encouragement to people is to read. There’s so much literature out there. You can find peer-reviewed articles, verified work, and you can learn more about how you can contribute.” 

This interview is edited for concision and clarity. 

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