Global warming threatens eastern North Carolina

Published 6:01 pm Thursday, April 17, 2008

By Staff
Scientific team developing management plan
Staff Writer
If sea level were to rise one meter, there would be no Hyde or Dare counties and the Outer Banks would all but become part of the sea floor. If it were to rise 20 feet, one-third of North Carolina would be lost to the ocean.
Those are worst-case scenarios in the discussion about global warming, according to Enrique Reyes, an associate professor of biology at East Carolina University. Reyes didn’t preach only doom and gloom during a presentation on climate change Wednesday afternoon at the N.C. Estuarium. His optimistic message was that he and a collection of scientists from the University of North Carolina System are on the case.
Sea level on the North Carolina coast rises about one-quarter of an inch every year, according to Reyes. That rate of sea-level rise is manageable, scientists are finding out, because plants can adapt to the rising water and survive. But, sea level is rising more quickly in recent years, as is the rate at which the planet’s global climate is warming, Reyes said. If the rate reaches half an inch per year, the state’s marshes and wetlands will drown.
While a warming climate is not a new phenomenon — the greenhouse effect was described by a scientist in 1824 — the acceleration of the natural warming of the earth and the human contribution to the process is new, Reyes said. The greenhouse effect is a process by which gasses in the upper atmosphere keep the sun’s heat from escaping.
Reyes and the team of scientists he works with are trying to understand how humans have contributed to the acceleration of global warming and the effects climate change will have specifically on North Carolina. Sea-level rise — one of many symptoms scientists associate with global warming — Reyes said would have the most profound effect on eastern North Carolina. It is also one of the most manageable results of a warming planet, he said.
If it occurs at a slow-enough pace, plants and animals can adapt to the rising water. In eastern North Carolina, rising water is not the only potentially negative impact. The loss of wetlands, marshes and the Outer Banks would represent the toppling of several lines of defenses the coast has against hurricanes winds and waves. Coupled with a warming ocean, which fuels the intensity of those storms, it could spell disaster for folks living in inland counties.
The scientific team is in the midst of a multi-year field study to inform state agencies about how to manage sea-level rise. The team is hoping the data it collects will help minimize the negative effects of climate change and take advantage of the opportunities the process might bring.