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A Talk on the Wild Side.

South Carolina: A Closer Look at Sea Level Rise on Cape Romain

A bird sitting atop a post

Location: Charleston County, South Carolina
Size: 66,267 acres
Main Objectives: Provide habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and resident species. There are over 277 species of birds found on the refuge.
Open to the public: Yes
Website: http://www.fws.gov/caperomain/
Climate Change Threat: sea level rise and loss of freshwater impoundments
Contacts: Stacy Shelton, USFWS, (404) 679-7290
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Photos: Photoset on Flickr
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Video: There's Nothing Level About Sea Level

South Carolina: A Closer Look at Sea Level Rise on Cape Romain

by Stacy Shelton

A wooden post in the middle of open water at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Charleston, South Carolina is literally a sign of climate change.

The sign warns visitors to keep their dogs off the refuge. It made sense until 2009, when the sea swallowed the island it sat atop. The narrow island, called Sandy Point, used to be a perfect nesting area for American oystercatchers, Wilson’s Plovers and terns. Just ten years ago, Sandy Point stretched for a mile.

Four aerial images show Sandy Point eroding
The disappearing island of Sandy Point at Cape Romain. Credit: USFWS. Click for full size.

The nearby Cape Island is also important habitat for wildlife. It’s one of the most important nesting areas on the Atlantic Coast for loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species that may soon be uplisted to endangered.

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From 1999 to 2006, the Cape Island beach receded 180 feet. Loggerheads returning to their birthplace to lay their own eggs began digging nests in areas exposed to high tides and groundwater intrusion. Many of their nests were inundated. 

In recent years, with help from sea turtle experts at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the South Carolina Aquarium, along with dozens of volunteers, the refuge’s Turtle Recovery Team has been relocating an ever increasing number of nests. The nests are dug up and moved to safe areas. Hatchling success has dramatically improved, from 25 percent to 78 percent.

A graph showing sea level rise
The sea has risen more than 1 foot in 100 years near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, near Charleston, SC, according to NOAA. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report projects sea level will continue rising at even more rapid rate. Click for full size.

Raye Nilius, project manager for the South Carolina Low Country National Wildlife Refuge Complex, questions whether in 50 years Cape Romain will be able to provide the habitat that species depend upon today. The refuge’s future existence may depend on conserving land on the mainland now, before spreading urban development takes away that option.

“The ocean encroaches on one side, human population increases on the other and the islands are caught in the middle,” she said.

From the aerial photographs, it appears that the mechanism of loss of the island is erosion, which would certainly be exacerbated by the higher sea level. Similarly sized islands have been "built" from dredge materials in the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon by the Army Corps of Engineers. Is artificial "restoration" of the island and erosion control an option?
# Posted By Kurt Steinke | 4/22/11 10:38 AM

I have visited many several SE beaches along the GA/SC coast. As sea levels rise, municipalities have been armoring the beaches with rip-rock to slow erosion. Regrettably, a former landscape of sea-oats covered dunes transitioning to wide flat beaches has been replaced by a wall of rocks with a narrow beach covered at high tide.
# Posted By Casten | 4/22/11 11:21 AM

I really like this blog. Very detailed and informative.
# Posted By Brent | 4/22/11 12:29 PM

Kurt, good question. Here's the answer from Cape Romain NWR Refuge Manager Sarah Dawsey: Beach renourishment is only a Band-Aid as erosion and sea level rise continues. And, it can be more harmful than helpful to wildlife. Longer-lasting solutions, such as armoring the beach with rocks or concrete walls, would prevent sea turtles from crawling up on the shore for nesting. On the other hand, there have been some successful bird nesting islands. But the majority of Cape Romain is a Class 1 Wilderness which restricts activities and could make beach renourishment or restoration more challenging and costly.
# Posted By Stacy Shelton | 4/22/11 4:22 PM

Video was great! Raye and Kevin, you have a wonderfully clear way of telling your story. Thank you for sharing this.
# Posted By Karene | 4/22/11 6:37 PM

How much sea-level rise has happened in this area already? How much of the refuge will be under water by 2100?
# Posted By | 4/23/11 9:35 AM

We have added South Carolina the the Service's SLAMM-View page. Take a look at the sea level rise simulations using the SLAMM model.
# Posted By Leo Miranda | 4/25/11 9:38 AM

The Defense Department is reponding to the impacts of climate change on natural resources; e.g., through the Legacy Resource Management Program and the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, DoD is implementing several strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts. An animated video introduces climate change and features projects on sea level rise and threatened and endangered species. Check out the video at http://www.dodworkshops.org/CC-Animation.html.
Related tools and the results of a 2010 CC Workshop are at http://www.dodworkshops.org/CC-Home.html
# Posted By | 4/28/11 2:09 PM

Cape Romain has been experiencing extreme tide events, likely due to accelerated climate change. The island is consistently being overwashed, and soon there may be little to no island left behind.

<a href="http://www.customdredgeworks.com/index1.html"...;
# Posted By Dredge | 5/18/13 3:24 AM
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