This student studies how plants can soften the devastating impacts of sea level rise

Makadunyiswe Ngulube’s research is helping Nova Scotians adapt to rising sea levels. This 25-year-old master’s of applied science student at St. Mary’s University has already shown that protecting indigenous water plants reduces the impact of climate change by weakening incoming waves.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

Tell us about your work.

Nova Scotia, like all coastal places, will have to contend with rising sea levels. In the past, we used hard infrastructure like dikes, but climate change is getting ahead of our ability to cope with higher, stronger waves and more extreme weather. We will need additional solutions.

My undergraduate research helped to show that naturally occurring plants like Sporobolus alterniflorus, commonly called smooth cordgrass or oyster grass, can smooth out and dissipate strong waves. Where they are a meter high, up to 60 per cent of the energy is dissipated within the first 10 meters of the marsh. Shoreline farmland and coastal habitats are better preserved without the damaging side-effects that often accompany human-built solutions. Nature is dynamic and adaptive. For example, even if the plants break in the face of the wave force, the broken parts still help to attenuate the energy. Nothing is wasted and it all helps.

It isn’t the only solution, of course. We will continue to need dikes and other approaches. But I am proud that my work is respected as helping provide at least part of the answer.

Makadunyiswe Ngulube is a Nova Scotia student studying adaptation methods for sea level rise. Photo submitted by Makadunyiswe Ngulube

What is next for you?

Makadunyiswe Ngulube is studying how natural plants can soften the devastating effects of sea level rise. #ClimateCrisis #SeaLevelRise

I am a master’s student at St. Mary’s University. I am preparing another project where we hope to learn more about the optimal density of these wonderful plants.

How did you come to this work?

I grew up in Zimbabwe. My parents are educators and theologians and my sister and I were encouraged to read widely and be curious. Often the books we chose were aimed at older audiences, but we were supported to dive in and take what we could from them. In the summer, we were expected to produce book summaries for family discussion so everyone could learn from each other. Balance between work, family and leisure was a way of life. Since TV was tightly rationed, we spent many hours reading and exploring the outdoors.

I knew I could never love a 9-to-5 office job and I knew I wanted to protect the Earth. I chose to study at St. Mary’s because it was completely different—small and with a strong environmental sciences program. It is ironic to me that coming from a landlocked country, I am now spending my life studying oceans.

I miss my family and my country a lot. But I know I am helping to make a difference here.

Makadunyiswe Ngulube’s family from left to right. Suzen (mom), Makadunyiswe, Sindah (dad), Makabongwe (older sister) in 1999. Photo supplied by Makadunyiswe Ngulube

What makes your work hard?

Not one works alone. In any room full of passionate people, there will be a diversity of ideas. It can be challenging to synthesize the wisdom of each team member so people feel respected, choose shared priorities and move forward together.

What gives you hope?

Change is coming. I am surrounded by well-intentioned, smart, knowledgeable people who are trying to understand.

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Sometimes you might have to do things you don’t want in the short term to get where you want to go. I don’t like office work, but I know it’s important to do good data analysis and to write up my research. I have come to appreciate it as providing balance in my life.

Progress can be slow, but it is still progress. Don’t compare yourself to others.

I find that it helps me to constantly return to “Why?” If I can remember the reason for my actions, I can stay more focused and motivated. I love Nova Scotia and I want to help protect it.

What would you like to say to older readers?

Your knowledge is still needed. Yes, technology and science are advancing, but nothing beats your direct observation and experience. And please keep telling us stories of how things changed for the better.

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