With over half of the American population living within 50 miles of the coast, climate change brings a new level of risk to life by the shore. Our coasts represent a complex land-sea interaction that is constantly in motion with the ebb and flow of the tides. Since the dawn of time, even the gentlest of waves has been at work reshapes our coastlines a few grains of sand at a time. However, recent events such as Hurricane Katrina or Sandy have demonstrated the awesome power of the ocean and its ability to transcend tidelines to wreak havoc on not only human populations, but the species and habitats that provide many benefits to society and natural ecosystems.
Encompassing approximately 66 thousand acres of barrier islands, salt marshes, intricate coastal waterways, long sand beaches, fresh and brackish water impoundments, and maritime forest – Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, located in Charleston County, South Carolina is no stranger to climate change threats.
In a recent visit to Bulls Island, I witnessed first hand some of the impacts of rising sea levels such the ruins of a levee that used to connect parts of the island, salt-sprayed tree tops, and what once was a forest of oaks now aptly named ‘Bone-yard Beach.’ This ghostly forest of dead trees is the remnant of a maritime forest and serves as a “record of what happens to the forest when sea levels rise and shoreline erodes away (Raye Nilius, the USFWS’s project leader for South Carolina Lowcountry Refuges Complex).” With the island losing ground at a rate of 25 to 30 feet a year, it’s no wonder Sarah Dawsey, Refuge Manager, is worried about the future of this truly extraordinary refuge along the Atlantic Coast. While touring Bulls Island with Sarah, I was continually struck by not only the beauty of the island itself, but the emotional response it evoked. Having recently moved from the Midwest, this was the first time I had ever explicitly witnessed the true impacts of sea level rise.
The good news, according to Nilius, is that the island can serve as a living laboratory where scientists and land managers can study these transitions from one type of habitat to another. In the meantime, staff members continue to look towards the refuge’s future existence.
To view pictures of my trip to Bulls Island or the Wolf viewing area located at the Seewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center, >>click here.
To take a closer look at sea level rise on Cape Romain or to watch a short video entitled “There’s Nothing Level about Sea Level” >>please click here.
If you’re interested in learning more about coastal ecosystems, please visit >>this site which offers a summary report of coastal ecosystems within the South Atlantic regions. In addition, if you would like a summary report on sea level rise, >>please click here.