‘Really critical to save’: Experts voice concerns over protecting salt marshes as sea levels rise

Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 4:24 PM EDT
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CARTERET COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - As more and more news comes out surrounding climate change and the impacts we could see due to sea levels rising, scientists are springing into action to try and determine what needs to be done.

One of their goals is to restore critical habitats like salt marshes along the coast that are some of the most vulnerable to climate change.

As you head to the coast, you’ll undoubtedly notice tall green grasses that pop up along the waterways.

Leda Cunningham with The Pew Charitable Trusts says salt marshes are everywhere in Eastern Carolina.

“We have them going up some of the waterways, some of the rivers, we have them out on the inside of the Outer Banks, they’re just really special,” Cunningham said.

The grassy habitats aren’t just special because they’re beautiful. Experts say they actually provide a number of critical services.

“Salt marshes are amazing places. They offer a ton of services to the people who live here, they protect the shoreline from erosion, from rising seas, they filter stormwater and runoff, and plus they’re just critical habitat for fish and birds and all of the activities that we love to do here in Eastern North Carolina...” Cunningham said.

Why the focus on salt marshes right now? Scientists are ringing the alarm due to rising sea levels. They say the habitats could stand to lose a lot.

“Without those marshes, we’re gonna see a reduction in water quality, that filtration service is going to go away, where those marshes are adjacent to populations, we’re going to see a lot more flooding, we’re going to see a lot more overtopping of the shoreline with wave energy,” Dr. Chris Baillie, North Carolina Coastal Federation resilience/climate adaption coordinator said.

However, the experts say the news isn’t all bad. Work at the state and regional levels is underway right now to determine what is the best way forward to protect these crucial areas.

“The South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative is a collaboration among four states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—to conserve over a million acres of salt marsh,” Cunningham said. “That’s about the size of the Grand Canyon National Park, so it’s really an extraordinary area and it’s really important that we think at that large scale for protecting.”

These groups aren’t just bringing together experts from the science community; they’re also including community members like Barbara Blake and Justin Wallace, who help residents understand what all of this news could mean for them.

“It’s walking alongside the conversation, making sure that we have the education, making sure that we have the resources, making sure that everything is there that the community can latch on and then retain the knowledge,” Wallace said.

Some of the solutions that experts say could protect these areas come down to smart land development, which would give these marshes room to migrate as seas rise, and protecting the areas we already have.

Scientists say other nature-based solutions like living shorelines, which also help protect the land from eroding, can also help protect salt marshes.

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