America loses ground to salinisation

American conservationists have been putting a lot of energy into publicising the plight of North Carolina’s coastline. Low lying, swampy and sprinkled with well managed conservation areas, it hosts numerous endangered species including the red wolf and red cockaded woodpecker, as well as a splinter group of black bears. It was here that early settlers drained bogs and built dykes, carving a new landscape from the peaty myre that greeted them off their boats.

However, rapid sea level change is threatening this unique ecosystem. In a long article in The New York Times yesterday, Jessica Leber visited Alligator River Wildlife refuge to report on the slow farewell to a coastal refuge:

A century from now, rising sea levels will have overwhelmed the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which juts from North Carolina’s mainland like a beckoning finger, shielded from the raw ocean by a sliver of barrier beaches known as the Outer Banks.

On the Albemarle peninsula, 2 inches makes the difference between life and death. The region’s trademark pocosin pines, whose name comes from the Algonquin word for “swamp on a hill,” are rooted in the disintegrating peat muck and dying from too much salt. Today, fields of standing dead trunks called snags line shores and canal banks and dot low-elevation dips in the terrain.

Two inches is also about how fast the sea level is climbing each decade, a rate that will accelerate over the next century. In an area where a 6-inch rise in the road qualas a ridge, “low” elevation is a relative term.

This is where the Nature Conservancy, along with state and federal agencies, has invested to protect and manage more than half a million acres over the last 30 years. Eventually ceding wide swaths of that to the sea may be inevitable, they know. But seeing the rest degrade to mud flats, forcing birds, black bears, and wolves to find homes elsewhere, is not an attractive option.

Salinisation is a problem threatening ecosystems and human habitats alike.  Just as the water poisons the soil for trees, so it destroys farmland and pollutes groundwater.  Needlees to say, this is happening in North Carolina as well:

Kelly and Blythe Davis, owners of a 1,000-acre farm in Hyde County, a coastal rural area to the south of the refuge, see climate change in the most concrete terms. Salt is killing some of their crops, and they are putting land that is no longer profitable into conservation set-aside programs.

But farmers’ precarious economic circumstances make planning years in advance, let alone decades, difficult for most area residents, said Mac Gibbs, Hyde County’s cooperative extension director. In a region alternately devastated by hurricanes and droughts, that has lived with sea level rise for decades, Gibbs said, many people accept changes they observe as part of a natural order.

Stewart, a 61-year-old Vietnam War veteran who has watched habitat disappear over decades, however, says that action is needed sooner rather than later. “I don’t want the next generation to say, ‘Boy, he should have done something.’

It is worth reading the full article here, as it eloquently spells out the challenge posed to conservationists: How much do you leave the natural landscape to adapt to the ecological changes brought about by sea level change; and how much do you try to slow down the encroachment of the ocean (e.g by planting salt resistant species near the shoreline), but in doing so fundamentally changing the ecosystem you are trying to protect.

One Response

  1. hi my name is Beatrice i come from Tiree and i met you when you came here i was just wondering how your journey is going and what it is like

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