Marsh Memories

As I stood in Middle Marsh, felt the warm breeze and watched the seabirds fly above me while the estuary waters swirled around my legs, I felt so at peace.

“This is so beautiful,” I said to Dr. Rodriguez, as he took measurements of the oyster reefs he studies.

“It is awesome,” Dr. Rodriguez agreed. “What’s really amazing, in addition to everything around us now, is how quickly the tide comes in. The water will be up to your waste in a couple hours.”

In fact, as I looked around the marsh, I could see the rolling ripples on the surface. The tide was already, as the saying goes, rolling in.

The memories of the marsh came back to me a few weeks later as I listened to John Holdren, the White House Science Advisor, discuss the National Climate Assessment, which is the government’s take on the latest science about climate change. This is the third such report. It totals 840 pages and the message was pretty clear.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," Holdren told the media at a press conference.

The report says low-lying coastal communities such as Miami, Norfolk and Portsmouth, New Hampshire are most vulnerable and are already seeing the impact of sea level rise with occasional flooding. Looking ahead to the end of the century, the report predicts additional sea level rise of one to four feet.

That means if I continued standing in Middle Marsh through the end of the century, the water would eventually be over my head.

The image is a little scary, and it made me wonder what would happen to coastal communities such as Beaufort, which I could see in the distance as I stood in the marsh.

The White House says some communities are already taking action to prepare for the climate that will be in place of the climate that was.

There is an effort to restore coastal wetlands as buffers against storm surge in some areas. Other communities are restricting new construction in low-lying areas. Still others are considering building higher seawalls. 

The challenge with climate change and sea level rise is that it is a slow process. In many ways that’s a good thing, because there is time to prepare for it. But there is so much uncertainty regarding the nature of the impact of climate change and also the economics of the impact that it is difficult for people to be concerned about it, much less how to pay for protecting ourselves from the impact. While polls show a majority of Americans believe the climate is changing, and the seas are rising, there is still some question about what effect humans are having. I don’t think Americans are ready to foot the bills to deal with it.

That makes Dr. Rodriguez’s research into using oyster reefs as protection against sea level rise all the more important. I don’t want to be in the marsh when the water rises.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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