Embracing The Salt And Adapting To Sea Level Rise
This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.
As the frequency of tropical storms and droughts increase and sea levels rise with climate change, forested wetlands along the Atlantic coast are slowly filling with dead and dying trees. The accelerating spread of these “ghost forests” over the past decade has ecologists alarmed and eager to understand how they are formed and what effect they will have regionally and globally.
One interdisciplinary group of researchers from North Carolina State University and Duke University are examining the causes and effects of repeated saltwater exposure to the coastal wetlands of North Carolina. Using soil and sediment sampling, remote hydrological monitoring, vegetation plotting, as well as spatial maps, the research team is determining the tipping point for when a struggling forest will become a ghost forest. According to ecologist Emily Bernhardt, their preliminary findings suggest that climate change is not the only culprit in the region.
Agricultural irrigation and wastewater ditches that criss-cross much of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula facilitate the flow of saltwater intrusion deep into the landscape, wreaking ecological and economic havoc. Working with Brian Boutin, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Albemarle-Pamlico Program, Dr. Bernhardt and colleagues hope to provide valuable scientific insights to local farmers, wetlands managers, and regional decision-makers to plan for the further intrusions and hopefully mitigate the effects.
In Science Friday’s latest Macroscope video, the scientists involved explain how they’re assessing and and dealing with these ghost forests.
Meanwhile, less than 100 miles up the coast from the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, the cities of Hampton Roads, Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay are facing some of the worst flooding due to sea level rise in the country. In Norfolk, home of the United States Navy, tides have increased as much as eight inches since the 1970s, and roads that lead from the community directly to naval installations are particularly vulnerable to flooding.
But in the last 10 years, Hampton Roads has begun to adapt. “When we first started having these discussions, there was a lot of concern about, should we be having discussions like this in public. What would be the potential impacts on economic development or on the population growth here?” said Ben McFarlane, senior regional planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. “Now it’s recognized and people know it’s happening. I think the strategy has changed to being more of a ‘Let’s stop talking about how bad it is and how bad it’s going to get. And let’s start talking about solutions.’”
The Planning District Commission supports the use of living shorelines and ordinance changes that discourage developing in flood prone areas. Norfolk has even been named one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities in part for its efforts promoting coastal resiliency in the face of sea level rise.
McFarlane joins Ira and Virginia Institute of Marine Science researcher Derek Loftis, whose research focuses on building hydrodynamic flood forecast models and prediction via remote sensing to enhance future resilience, to discuss how Hampton Roads is embracing the sea and adapting to climate change.
Emily Bernhardt is a professor of Ecology in the Department of Biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Brian Boutin is Director of the Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds Program at The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina, based in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.
Kristina Dahl is a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in San Francisco, California.
John Derek Loftis is an assistant research scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, Virginia.
Benjamin McFarlane is a senior regional planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission in Chesapeake, Virginia.