Artificial oyster reefs parallel to the shoreline is a natural way to slow the rate of erosion by catching wave energy. Photo: USFWS.
What can we do about climate change?
One thing we can do is prepare for it, by working with Mother Nature. At the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, where rising seas are eroding the shoreline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy are giving the Albemarle Peninsula a fighting chance.
Starting with a $1 million grant from Duke Energy, the partners have constructed artificial oyster reefs along the shoreline, planted salt- and flood-tolerant trees and vegetation, and restored freshwater wetlands. The goal is to give the land and its species, such as forest-dependent birds and black bears, time to adapt to sea level rise, increased salinity and other climate change impacts.
“We want to slow the rate of erosion; we’re not going to stop it,” said Mike Bryant, Project Leader for six national wildlife refuges on coastal North Carolina, including Alligator River. “If we did nothing, we think we’d see large-scale change in habitats from forest to marsh, and that means the wildlife dependent on these forest communities would have to find some other place. We’ll have larger expanses of marsh and then that marsh will succumb -- along with the soil that it’s standing on -- to the sea level rise and we’ll see continued, accelerated rates of erosion.”
Too much water from the Alligator River on the west side of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is slowly killing off bald cypress and black gum trees. Photo: USFWS.
Here’s how the Climate Adaptation Project is preparing the refuge for accelerating climate impacts:
- The artificial reefs, made of limestone rock and oyster shells, are already attracting oysters. They provide a natural buffer to shield the tidal marsh from crashing waves. The result should be reduced erosion and a more stable shoreline.
- As the sea creeps inland at the rate of about 25 feet a year, the coastal forest is dying and changing to salt marsh. The refuge’s newest saplings include native black gum and bald cypress. Both species can handle a little salty water. On land expected to be submerged in the near future, the partners are planting brackish marsh vegetation to ease the transition.
- Freshwater wetlands that had been drained for mining and farming are being restored. Returning the natural balance to the water table will reduce saltwater intrusion, which is causing the soil to erode more quickly and is killing off salt-intolerant trees in the pocosin forest. Partners are also plugging manmade ditches that were pulling the sea farther inland.
The Albemarle Region is the portion of North Carolina’s coast most vulnerable to sea level rise. The red area is the land that’s just 1.5 meters above sea level. See full size.
Bryant expects to have initial results on the measures’ effectiveness by 2015.
Alligator River NWR, which sits behind North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is one of only two places in the world where TNC is working on projects designed to ease shoreline transitions. The second spot is in Indonesia, said Frederick Annand, associate director of TNC in North Carolina.
“Our long-term goal is to export [the transition projects] to other places, in North Carolina and around the world,” Annand said.
Recently, TNC and the Service agreed to expand the Climate Adaptation Project beyond Alligator River, to eight more national wildlife refuges along North Carolina’s coast.
Author: Stacy Shelton, USFWS Public Affairs
- Mike Bryant, Project Leader, North Carolina Coastal Plains Refuges Complex, USFWS, firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-473-1131, ext. 222 (o)
- Stacy Shelton, USFWS Public Affairs, email@example.com, 404-679-7290 (o), 678-575-7796 (m)