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Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise in North Carolina: Maps, Marshes, and Management Applications

This project began in January 2005 and was completed in December 2012

We are developing mapping and modeling tools to provide the North Carolina coastal management community the most up to date research on the effect of sea level rise and storminess on coastal habitats and to mitigate subsequent regional ecological impacts.

Why We Care
The threat of sea level rise and increased storminess poses many resource management challenges in North Carolina due to the state’s low elevation, extensive barrier islands, and vulnerability to coastal storms. North Carolina coastal decision makers need locally tailored information to successfully plan for the future effect of sea level rise and storminess on vital coastal ecosystems. The effects of sea level rise on North Carolina coastal habitats are currently occurring and are expected to accelerate due to climate change. The state possesses the largest estuarine system on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, with an extensive barrier island chain, and over 2,300 square miles of coastal land vulnerable to a one-meter rise in sea level. Given the range of possible sea level rise scenarios and their associated levels of plausibility, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards recommends that a rise of one-meter be adopted as the amount of anticipated rise by 2100, for policy development and planning purposes.

Planning for Research
The first phase of this project was initiated in 2005 as a cooperative network of five multi-investigative projects funded by NCCOS through its Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (EESLR) Program. In 2005, a project Technical Advisory Committee formulated a research program for predicting the ecological effects of sea level rise and to help design and lead a needs assessment scoping workshop. The resulting workshop was composed of over 60 scientists and managers who identified relevant research questions that would advance knowledge and predictions of interactions among sea level, shoreline, bathymetry, coastal habitats, and ecosystem effects, and their application to coastal management.

What We Did (Phase 1)
With competitive funding awarded in FY 2005, we integrated models of physical attributes such as circulation, tidal elevations, and storm surge with ecological models of wetlands, oyster reefs, submerged aquatic vegetation, and other near shore ecosystems.

On the physical modeling side, our NOAA partners adjusted land elevations and water depths to  a common vertical datum, integrated bathymetry for the underwater study area with LIDAR-based land elevations, and developed a storm surge model to simulate wind-driven tides, hurricane-driven surges, synoptic wind events, a changing shoreline, and inundation patterns.

On the ecological modeling side, our academic partners developed techniques to forecast the impacts of sea level rise on various coastal habitats and physical locations:

  • On the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound, East Carolina University researchers created a predictive method to incorporate the critical parameters controlling shore-zone dynamics as determined by isolated shore zone studies.
  • On the wetlands of Pamlico and Core Sounds, a team led by the University of South Carolina used an existing model for cord grass (Spartina) that integrates vegetation responses to changes in mean sea level with sediment accretion and supply and adapted the model to rush (Juncus) marsh communities and conditions in Back and Bogue Sounds.
  • The research team from the University of North Carolina created a habitat simulation module to forecast the effects of variable water levels and shoreline stabilization on the structure and ecological function of sub-tidal, submerged aquatic vegetation, inter-tidal flat, oyster, and marsh habitats.
  • Last, an East Carolina University researcher developed a landscape model to integrate physical and ecological parameters to examine the effect and extent of ecological change due to sea level rise and storm surge on coastal habitats.

Management Connections
A second workshop, Planning for the Impacts of Sea Level Rise and Climate Change, was held in 2007 with the goal of soliciting guidance from the coastal management community for designing scientifically informed modeling and mapping tools that will assist governing agencies and businesses located in North Carolina’s coastal zone. Over 50 coastal zone managers and stakeholders from North Carolina learned about the North Carolina sea level rise scientific research, and then identified four priority applications for scientifically informed decisions (see Workshop Summary below). A third scoping workshop in 2009, North Carolina Sea Level Rise Project: Application to Management, informed managers of the project’s advances toward understanding the impacts of sea level rise on North Carolina coastal ecosystems and toward the development of maps and modeling tools to aid coastal managers and decision makers (see Workshop White Paper below).

Near the end of the first phase of the project, NCCOS funded a research geographer, through the North Carolina State Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, to lead a phase two team to present the scientific results in an integrated format, particularly using maps and geospatial data.

What We Are Doing Now (Phase 2)
The first phase of the project (described above) improved our understanding of ecological processes and landscape changes anticipated in response to sea level rise, including inundation, accretion, shoreline erosion, and estuarine transgression across the vast low-lying coastal plain. The results of these observational and simulation studies are providing us with scientific insights that will enhance future model development and understanding of the high degree of uncertainty in marsh responses and landscape evolution.

Subsequent to this research, conservation management agencies have communicated a need for synthesized maps and information on impacts and uncertainty. Several coastal managers, planners, policy-makers, and restoration project leaders have identified specific needs for maps and geospatial data for decision-making and communication. Toward filling this gap, a follow-on effort (phase 2) entitled “EESLR in North Carolina: Maps, Marshes, and Management Applications” is developing and refining information products for managers through engaged collaboration, emphasizing communicative cartography, analytical and interactive tools, and a geospatial database.

The first phase of the project (2005–2008) included partners from the U.S. Geological Survey, East Carolina University, the University of South Carolina, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.

The second phase of the project (2008–2012; “maps, marshes, and management”) was led by East Carolina University’s Department of Geography and included The Nature Conservancy, the Renaissance Computing Institute, and NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites.

Next Steps
Although there are no plans at this time to extend the project beyond 2012, next steps could include funding partnerships with the State of North Carolina and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue developing mapping and modeling tools.

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