06/08/2012 07:42 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Using Nature to Protect Against Natural Disasters

Does it feel like there are more large-scale storms, floods, and wildfires than there used to be? You wouldn't be alone if you felt that way, and you wouldn't be wrong. No fewer than 14 weather disasters caused damages exceeding $1 billion each in the United States in 2011, breaking the previous record of nine in 2008. Already, 2012 has seen unusually frequent and fierce weather patterns, such as the "weekend of 100 tornadoes." And with the recent announcement that the past 12 months were the warmest on record, more years like 2011 are undoubtedly to come.

But as helpless as we may all feel in the face of these natural disasters, there are steps we can take to prevent and minimize the damage to our communities and our economy, because it turns out that the best defense again natural disasters is nature itself.

Indeed, Defenders' new report, "Harnessing Nature," demonstrates that preserving and rebuilding "green infrastructure" is one of the most cost-effective, practical, and sustainable ways to protect American communities from natural disasters. The new report demonstrates that by strengthening natural defenses like floodplains, wetlands, and forests -- which help with erosion protection, flood control, and water filtration -- we can "harness nature" to help protect us from extreme events.

The weather changes occurring across the country are not like a bad storm that will eventually blow over. As climate change continues unabated, these events will intensify in years to come. Tornadoes, floods, and wildfires can destroy entire communities and will continue to do so unless we take steps to prepare ourselves and protect our communities in a changing world. And already, communities across the country are taking advantages of the defenses nature provides.

In California, as part of the Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project, land managers in the Sierra Nevadas are collaborating with a wide variety of stakeholders to restore key areas to an ecological condition that offers better protect against wildfires. This includes control of invasive species, meadow restoration, thinning of forests, waterway improvement, and carefully prescribed burns to make these lands more resilient to future stresses. In all, more than 150,000 acres will be "treated" as part of this project to help reduce the wildfire threat to towns and homeowners in the region.

New Yorkers are also turning to Mother Nature to ensure a steady supply of clean drinking water in an age of increasing heat waves and droughts. By protecting landscapes around numerous upstate lakes and reservoirs, thus using the natural processes to filter the water, the city has saved billions that would have been spent on filtration plants. And they have an aggressive plan to better manage stormwater and agricultural runoff in the future to further ensure the quality of the water making its way to the city.

Homeowners along Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia have also begun to rely on natural solutions as they watch their shorelines disappear thanks to erosion and rising sea levels. Instead of erecting more bulkheads and rock walls, which tend to break down after only a few years, shore denizens are increasingly turning to "living shorelines." These locally tailored projects include the use of various trees, aquatic plants, and natural barriers like oysters reefs to buffer coastlines against wave erosion and rising sea levels.

And in Missouri, upstream from St. Louis, people are beginning to harness the power of floodplain wetlands -- nature's sponges -- to help protect against major flooding disasters like those that occurred in 1993 and 2011. Nearly 30,000 acres are being restored, and already, local residents have noticed relief from small floods, although much more work needs to be done to restore enough wetlands to protect against larger flooding events.

These are just some of the actions local communities are taking to "harness nature" in the fight to protect against looming natural disasters. But there are things individuals can do, too.

Residential rain gardens composed of native plants that absorb a lot of water can help slow erosion and runoff even when built on a small scale. Similarly, green roofs, which absorb water and help cool interiors, can help, as can simple things like rain barrels to collect roof runoff. And small-effort/big-payoff steps like planting shade trees on the southern and western sides of your house can not only help with erosion, but can lower cooling bills, too.

With more and more natural disasters looming thanks to climate change, it is important that individuals and communities do what they can to help protect themselves. Fortunately, when it comes to defending against natural disasters, nature herself is our best ally.

Defenders' report can be found here.