Among the things Kelly Davis has noticed in her 35 years living on a farm in flat-as-a-billiard-table eastern North Carolina are pine trees disappearing and salt-loving marsh plants taking their places; entire islands disappearing from a wetland; and saltwater sneaking in from nearby Pamlico Sound to turn once-fruitful farmland into ground that won’t produce a crop.

Davis’s thousand-acre farm in coastal Hyde County has been in her husband’s family for more than 100 years. Like most of the farms in the area, portions of the land are former wetlands, and it lies two feet or less above sea level. That means as sea level rise accelerates, Davis can see the shift with her own eyes.

“We’re right on the front line,” she said, referring to the changing climate. “Change is obvious here.”

North Carolina made national news in 2012 when lawmakers forbade state agencies from preparing for accelerated sea-level rise projected over coming decades. But Davis hasn’t been waiting for governmental agencies to take action.

Instead, her family has joined refuge managers and conservationists helping to protect coastal wetlands as seas rise. For example, her son Coleman, 14, monitors water quality and shoreline erosion at nearby Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge and sends the data to The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter, a conservation group working on adaptation.

“If we see that there’s a problem, and there’s something we can do to maybe not fix it, but help it, we do it,” she said.

Wetlands at Risk

Sea levels have changed before, but for the past 3,000 years, waters rose only slowly. When water, including seawater, heats up — as it’s doing now — it expands, causing sea levels to rise. Melting glaciers are also contributing. In North Carolina, scientists have projected that seas could rise between 15 and 55 inches by 2100, potentially swamping beaches, flooding coastal cities, and drowning wetlands.

Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a conservation group in Norfolk, Va., is particularly concerned about the loss of wetlands, which are natural filters for polluted water. They also provide habitat for fish, shellfish, and birds.

“From New Jersey all the way down to South Carolina — simultaneously — we’re losing wetlands,” Stiles says. “It isn’t just one place. It’s everywhere.”

Readying For Rise

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a 154,000-acre haven in Hyde and Dare counties, is home to the critically endangered red wolf. Here, rising waters are eroding shorelines. Dying trees — killed by saltwater — are turning orange and brown.

“It’s just an eye-opening experience to see how much habitat change we’ve had,” said Dennis Stewart, biologist for the refuge. “Apparently these habitats won’t tolerate even low concentrations of salt water.” (Also see: Alligator River podcast.)

Stewart says that ultimately, if the ecosystem is to survive, it must gradually move westward. And he says it’s up to biologists like him to help the habitat make a healthy transition. “We know we can’t stop the effects of sea-level rise, but we’re hoping we can maybe slow it down,” he said.

The idea is that if conservationists buy time for wetlands, vulnerable North Carolina species will more easily migrate to the west and adapt to new homes uphill.

So the refuge is partnering with The Nature Conservancy to experiment with conservation techniques that could give the wetlands some extra time.

In one project, the group built oyster reefs in the Croatan Sound offshore of the refuge. The reefs buffer the shore from waves, slowing erosion.

Plugging Ditches

Another conservation technique involves blocking salty water from wetlands.

As waters rise, fingers of saltwater are pushing their way into eastern North Carolina through a network of ditches that crisscrosses the land. People built the ditches to drain the land for timbering, farming, and road-building. Two hundred and eighty miles of ditches lie within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge alone.

So TNC is working with the refuge to plug the ditches, said Christine Pickens, an adaptation specialist with the group. The group has installed water control structures in drainage canals that slow the escape of freshwater. And with plugs in place, saltwater can’t penetrate so easily into wetlands.

Private landowners can plug ditches, too. The Davis family, the farmers in Hyde County, converted about 30 acres of lowland on their property into wetland by filling in ditches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program enabled the family to be compensated for taking the land out of crop rotation.

Kelly Davis says that as soon as the ditches were plugged, a new wetland — now in its 15th year — sprang to life. Seeds of wetland plant species sprouted almost immediately, as if waiting for the day freshwater returned. Amphibians and their predators, like the wetland birds called rails, moved in.

Stewart, the biologist, says it feels strange to work to protect a place that inevitably may go underwater one day. But he’s not ready yet to throw up his hands.

“We’re going to be a lot better off if we come up with innovative ways to adapt to the changes brought about by rising sea level,” he says, “than we would be if we just stuck our head in the sand and did nothing.”

Photo: Dennis Stewart, biologist for the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (photo source: Wikimedia).

Sara Peach

Sara Peach is the Senior Editor of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist, and...