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Thanks to climate change, the threats of sea level rise and increasingly intense storms are growing in North Carolina’s coastal communities. There is something we can do to better conserve coastal ecosystems and it doesn’t even require a lot of heavy lifting. Protect the wetlands.
Environmental researchers say that North Carolina’s 220,000 acres of salt marsh, wetlands that are flooded and drained by tidal salt water, are a tremendous benefit to the ecosystem. They store about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide; reduce wave energy and erosion rates by 50-80%; and reduce flooding by soaking up as much as 300,000 gallons of water per acre per day. A 2020 study found that coastal wetlands also significantly reduce property damage during tropical cyclones. In addition, they provide a stormwater buffer that helps protect water quality.
Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers determined that North Carolina’s expansive salt marsh meadows and seagrass beds are also storing atmospheric carbon captured in coastal ecosystems, also known as Blue Carbon. Because Blue Carbon removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases, these ecosystems play a vital role in slowing climate change. But overdevelopment and climate change are putting our salt marshes at risk.
Marshes are generally capable of keeping up with sea level rise but the rate of rise in recent decades makes it difficult to keep pace. So, they are in danger of being drowned or washed away. Salt marshes are being pushed back and often have no place to go because the retreat path is blocked by coastal development. When that happens, the marsh collapses and loses its ability to sequester carbon. Some of the carbon ends up back in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that plays a key function in heating the globe.
The marshes also act as a nursery for marine species. “About 75% of commercial and recreational fish species in our region spend at least a portion of their lifecycle in the salt marsh so if we don’t protect or plan, we’re going to lose that habitat as well as those species,” says Lora Clarke, a Pew science and policy lead for ocean conservation in the U.S. South Atlantic. “Birds, reptiles, mammals all depend on the salt marsh. So it has a huge impact on biodiversity.”
The Pew Research Charitable Trust and the NC Coastal Federation are among more than two dozen groups working to develop the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Conservation Initiative. Led by the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability (SERPPAS), the conservation plan will help communities better prepare for the future through targeted restoration projects and conserving open lands so that this habitat can migrate as sea levels rise.
“Our goal is to protect and conserve the 1 million acres of salt marsh that currently exists from North Carolina down through Northeast Florida,” says Clarke. “This is a voluntary plan but these different partners are interested in salt marsh for different reasons. The many different benefits of salt marsh helped bring together all these different groups into a really strong partnership.”
**Cover photo credit: Pew Charitable Trust