UMD and The Nature Conservancy Launch a New Storytelling Tool to Explain the Science of Saltwater Intrusion on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Image Credit: Dani Weissman, University of Maryland

November 27, 2018 Samantha Watters

The value of disseminating sound science through storytelling and data visualization to the public, stakeholders, and policy makers is becoming increasingly apparent. With this exact goal in mind, a UMD student launched an online Story Map, showing how some of the oldest farms in our country right here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are being lost to a changing climate, rising sea level, and saltwater intrusion.

With funding from Maryland Sea Grant program and in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Dani Weissman, PhD student in Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, is working directly on this project with Assistant Professor Kate Tully. Tully was recently awarded $1.2 million by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for her research on sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Saltwater intrusion reduces soil quality, crop productivity, and increases pollution of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus into local waterways around the Chesapeake Bay. The project combines crop research, wetland ecology, chemical analysis, and economic modeling to not only determine what crop management strategies work in saltier environments, but identify practical applications that will be the most cost effective and profitable to the farmer while protecting the environment.

With these research goals, however, comes a set of equally important communication and outreach goals. “Our long-term goal is the development of agroecosystems that are resilient in the face of rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion,” says Tully. “But this project is unique in that it combines many different disciplines and takes research directly into practical application and education. We will be sharing our results with farmers and extension agents to directly improve environmental and economic outcomes.”

This may include the development of webinars, trainings, and factsheets for farmers, and the story map provides yet another platform for communication and dissemination of results. However, the Story Map that Weissman developed has another key audience in mind - policy makers. The primary goal is to reach policy makers to help them understand the science behind these issues and inform policy decisions.

“My goal was to make the research more adaptable and accessible,” says Weissman. “In working on this project, I found that policy makers really don’t know the science behind these issues, but they want to. It just needs to be in a format that is understandable and usable.”

This is where visuals become important. Since policy makers have very little time, they need something that speaks to them quickly and easily, but is also geographically driven so they can relate it to their stakeholders and constituents. A GIS Story Map fills this gap since it visually captures geographic data and provides a user-friendly viewing format, creating an online platform to learn about this work.

“With all our stakeholders in mind, the last part of the Story Map is going to focus on calls to action,” says Weissman. “We don’t want to just present problems - we want to show how our work will lead to solutions.”

The story map can be found online here.