This March researchers from the University of Georgia and Clemson University will begin the first season of field surveys of a three year project to assess the vulnerability of both terrestrial vertebrate and aquatic vertebrate and invertebrate species of the South Carolina and Georgia coast to sea level rise.   In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change predicted an accelerated one meter increase of sea levels by the year 2100.  At the time the IPCC was written a one meter sea level rise scenario was considered a conservative estimate, but even under that scenario the impact to low-elevation coastal zones in Georgia and South Carolina may be ecologically and socially significant. 

This project, funded by SALCC through the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, will model the potential changes to critical habitats for species of concern determined through either state or federal conservation management and protection lists. The Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) predicts that smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) dominated salt marsh will experience the most significant loss of all coastal land cover types. Thus, we will conduct rigorous occupancy surveys throughout estuaries of Georgia and South Carolina for marsh dependent species including (but not limited to) the seaside sparrow, clapper rail, black rail, least bittern, red drum, spotted sea trout, blue crab, and diamondback terrapin.   We selected 225 stratified survey points throughout the salt marshes of Georgia to be surveyed three times from March – June using call back surveys, minnow traps, and trawl nets.

In addition, the project will focus on fine scale assessment of the impact of habitat change to salt marsh dependent species at potential marsh restoration sites on the barrier islands of Georgia.  Through the construction of levees and roads, these sites have experienced altered or restricted tidal flow due to ‘pinch points’ that have changed the hydrology of the salt marsh upstream.  We will be sampling in these areas for changes in terrestrial and aquatic communities from areas below the pinch points and above the pinch points towards the uplands of the islands.  This data will not only provide a model of a spatial community response to the hydrological changes of sea level rise, but also a baseline estimate of community composition that can be compared to post-restoration communities.

Through collaborators from a variety of institutions and backgrounds, including the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Coastal Resources Division, our project will contribute valuable information to the scientific community, conservation management, and the SALCC.  While the first season of any field study is dominated by the phrase “be adaptable,” we are excited for the challenges ahead of us and anticipate a productive field season this year.