Plans to preserve North Carolinas’ salt marshes

Published 2:38 pm Monday, July 3, 2023

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By Clark Curtis for the Washington Daily New and the North Carolina News Service

North Carolinas’ coastal area is comprised of 220,000 acres of salt marshes. And according to a recent report from the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative (SASMI), the salt marshes over time, are in danger of possible extinction due to rising sea levels and urbanization. “Salt marshes are incredibly productive ecosystems,” said Tom Stroud, director the North Carolina Estuarium. “They are considered to have more biomass per square meter than rain forests. Tiny crabs, small worms and fish, gastropods and mollusk fill the sound and create the base of the food web and thrive in these marshes. Without them the entire Estuary food web would be threatened and could possibly collapse.”

Stroud pointed out another real benefit of the salt marshes is their ability to hold and store carbon. “Just within the last decade or so we have been able to ascertain a much better understanding of just how much of a “carbon sink” the salt marshes are. By holding and storing the carbon dioxide they obviously are keeping it out of the atmosphere, making it a disaster should we loose them all.” Researchers from Duke University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have estimated that North Carolinas’ salt marshes alone, hold 64 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Encompassing nearly one-million acres, the salt marshes extend from North Carolina all the way to East Central Florida. Ensuring their future is why SASMI has released a new plan which outlines a lengthy list of mitigators to ward off the impacts of global warming. It includes dozens of solutions such as: protecting and restoring the health and functions of existing salt marshes, conserving migration corridors, removing and retrofitting barriers and adjacent lands to ensure salt marshes can shift as sea levels rise, and elevating new roads above the important wildlife habitat.

Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said the salt marsh areas provide essential protections that the state can not afford to lose. “The message, I think, is that these new strategies buy us time to deal with the warming climate,” said Miller. “These are just short-term solutions and it is going to take everyone to make a long-term change. If we don’t do something to slow down global warming, then we’re look at pretty catastrophic impacts after 2050.”

Though the projected impacts, if nothing is done, are still decades away, Stroud said this is a very rapid changeover for an ecosystem. “If nothing is done, the salt marshes would continue to be very stressed and have nowhere to migrate or reform, and would eventually collapse,” said Stroud. “And, again decades, the water in the Pamlico River would become much saltier, similar to the salinity levels in the Pamlico sound. With levels two to three times higher than they are today, it would be much more stressful on human infrastructures in Beaufort County. The simple answer is to start addressing the problem now, before it is too late.”

In the end, the SASMI reports shows sea levels will continue to rise, pressures from development will continue to grow, and severe weather will remain a fact of life for the South Atlantic region. Ensuring a thriving salt marsh ecosystem into the future means addressing the primary threats that are in existence today. Thus, its efforts must focus on those factors within our control or risk losing such a valued resource. A resource that serves as a habitat for more than 75 percent of marine life, serves as a buffer between land and sea by shielding coastal areas from storm surge, flood, and erosion, and helping to purify the water and the air that we breath.