A decade ago, a panel of North Carolina scientists released a report for North Carolina policy makers that found sea levels could rise up to 39 inches by 2100. Republicans in the General Assembly called the report “alarmist” and passed a law restricting the adoption of any rule, ordinance, policy or planning guideline that mentioned sea level or a rate of sea-level rise in coastal counties. Turns out the report wasn’t alarmist enough.
Sea-level rise is happening faster and with more disastrous effects than once thought. The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report changed the agency’s projection of sea level rise from 1.5 feet to just under two feet. Even two-and-a-half feet is not out of the question. The projection models show a small chance that, if some of the largest glaciers in Antarctica collapse this century, sea-level rise could reach 6.5 feet by 2100.
The devastating effects of sea level rise are already wreaking havoc along the Atlantic coast. North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has lost 11% of its tree cover due to rising sea levels since 1985. This federally protected land is now marked by “ghost forests” or a graveyard of “wooden tombstones” because trees are being swallowed up by swells of salty ocean water.
Most of the damage occurred in just one year - 2012. That’s when Hurricane Irene brought a 6-foot wall of seawater ashore and basically choked the trees to death. Such places are increasingly common along the entire Atlantic Coastal plain. The barren land is so vast it can be seen from space.
Duke researcher and ecologist Emily Ury co-authored a paper on the rapid deforestation of the North Carolina coast published in the April journal Ecological Applications. She worries that the unique coastal wetlands represent “the leading edge of climate change.”
The Alligator River is home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, the only woodpeckers to excavate nest and roost sites in living trees. It is one of only two woodpecker species protected by the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Federal and State agencies and private landowners to keep redcockaded woodpeckers from sliding to extinction.
Ury has spent years exploring the wetlands along the Atlantic coast and logging the advance of the skeletal trees formed as the result of rising sea level from the Atlantic. But the satellite images taken from 430 miles above the Earth really alarmed her. Cypress, pine, red maple and sweetgum forests are being replaced by saltmarsh which will ultimately be replaced by open water.
As sea level rise outpaces the ability of forests to adapt, Ury is among a growing number of conservationists who say we should facilitate the inevitable transition and introduce salt-tolerant marsh plants in threatened zones that may prolong the lifespan of coastal wetlands. “If forests are dying anyway, having a salt marsh is a far better outcome than allowing a wetland to be reduced to open water,” said Ury.