South Carolina Lowcountry Refuges
Southeast Region

 

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Unique Climate Change Challenges

  Rising Sea Level at Bulls Island. Credit: Steve Hillebrand
  Rising sea level at Bulls Island. Credit: Steve Hillebrand
  Bald Cypress Forest Succumbs to Salt Stress. Credit: Craig Sasser/USFWS
  Bald Cypress forest succumbs to salt stress.
Credit: Craig Sasser/USFWS
  Drought Conditions Impact Wildlife Habitats. Credit: Marc Epstein/USFWS
  Drought conditions impact wildlife habitat. Credit: Marc Epstein/USFWS

Climate change is described as the most compelling conservation challenge of our time. Accelerating climate change will affect our nation's fish, wildlife, and plant resources in profound ways. While many species will continue to thrive, some populations may decline and in some instances, go extinct. Other species may require direct and continuous intervention by managers for their very survival. This presents a defining challenge for the conservation community and requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to join with partners to apply their collective skills, determination, creativity and committment to conserve our nation's natural resources.

Each refuge within the South Carolina Lowcountry Refuge complex is presented with its own unique management challenges to reduce the impact of climate change on its resources.

The effects of a changing climate on Cape Romain NWR will mostly be from rising seas that promote accelerated beach erosion, submergence of extensive salt marsh habitats, and the conversion of habitats from salt marsh to tidal flats and then open water. Rising sea levels and erosion from wind, waves, ocean currents and storms destabilize and fragment vital beach habitat that supports shorebirds, sea birds and nesting sea turtles. Rising sea levels will have a detrimental effect on brackish water impoundments, reducing wintering habitat for waterfowl species and foraging habitat for wading and colonial nesting shorebirds. As the beach retreats inland, maritime forest will be affected, impacting protective nesting areas and food sources for songbirds and other wildlife species. Future salt marsh acreage will be determined by the marsh capacity to rise to match the rate of rising sea level; the rate of erosion of the seaward boundary of the marsh; and, the availability of space for the marsh to migrate inland.

Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin NWR, adjacent to intertidal waters (both salt and fresh) and situated at elevations typically less than 10 feet about sea level, is highly susceptible to the effects of even minimal sea level rise. Sea level rise will greatly challenge existing management practices pertaining to the protection of historic structures; managing water levels for 3500 acres of marsh impoundments and forested fresh water reservoirs; and maintenance of about 60 miles of riparian dikes, causeways and refuge roads. With increased sea levels and full tides, aquatic ecosystems will likely become more saline, potentially converting the vegetative composition of salt, fresh, marsh and forested wetlands to habitats with different vegetation and/or open water. With habitat changes, shifts in animal populations are likely to result, including changes for migratory waterfowl and other bird species, numerous reptiles and amphibians, and endangered and threatened species such as the shortnose sturgeon, wood stork and whooping crane.

The wetland diversity within the Waccamaw NWR is significant and includes some of the most diverse freshwater wetland sytems in the world. Because of the proximity of these wetlands to the Winyah Bay Estuary, the systems are heavily influenced by daily tides and serve an important role in providing essential ecological functions that sustain the estuary. Recent droughts and reduced flows in the Waccamaw and Great Pee Dee Rivers (rivers associated with the freshwater tidal wetlands) have allowed salt water intrusion to reach levels not documented since the beginning of modern history. Old growth forested wetlands are slowly succumbing to salt stress, and increased mortality in bald cypress is being documented as well as the conversion of freshwater to brackish marsh communities. These forest wetlands are significant foraging and nesting habitat for the Swallow-tailed kite, a species that has made the refuge its northernmost nesting area within its range.

Santee NWR, located in the upper Atlantic Coastal Plain, includes mixed hardwoods and pines, fields, freshwater marsh and open water. A changing climate, with increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation, will augment warmer, dryer conditions. Under drought conditions, the refuge will be unable to effectively manage forested bottomland wetlands and wildlife impoundment habitats. Unique systems like the Dingle Pond Carolina Bay, an isolated wetland completely dependant on hydrology and water levels, will be vulnerable.

The South Carolina Lowcountry Refuges are committed to help reduce the impact of climate change on our resources. With monitoring and research partnerships, staff committed to leading the conservation effort on climate change, and proacative support from the public, we are applying sound science to our management decisions to minimize impacts of climate change on our fish and wildlife populations and their habitats.

The USFWS Climate Change Strategic Plan establishes a basic framework for its employees to work with the entire conservation community and employs Adaptation, Mitigation, and Engagement to address climate change. Adaptation involves planned management actions the Service will take to help reduce the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, and their habitats. Mitigation involves reducing our "carbon footprint" by using less energy, consuming fewer materials, and altering our land management practices. Engagement involves reaching out to Service employees; local, national and international partners in the public and private sectors; key constituencies and stakeholders; and the broader citizenry of this country to join forces and seek solutions to the challenges to fish and wildlife conservation posed by climate change.

Last updated: February 19, 2013
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