Erosion has claimed more than 1,000 acres of South Carolina’s barrier islands — a trend of land loss that’s only expected to increase as the climate warms.
Over the past 25 years, 1,200 acres have been washed away from four barrier islands in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina’s Island Packet reported Monday. On Hunting Island, almost 15 feet of land is washed away each year — the island’s state park used to rent out 10 beach houses to visitors, but due to erosion’s effects on roads and property in the area, it now rents out only one. With sea levels in the Southeast expected to rise by up to 5 feet by the end of this century, erosion on Hunting and the rest of South Carolina’s barrier islands is predicted to worsen.
That’s not just bad news for people hoping to visit the islands — it also spells major trouble for the islands’ varied species of wildlife. South Carolina’s barrier islands provide a key habitat for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, which lays its eggs in the islands’ dunes. As those dunes wash away, that habitat is lost. Birds like least terns, black skimmers and eastern brown pelicans also depend on the islands for nesting habitats, and are under threat as shoreline recedes.
“We used to have huge numbers of eastern pelicans on some of those islands,” Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Raye Nilius told the Island Packet. In one area of the island, he said, “They’re all gone now. Their habitat has been diminished in size.”
Barrier islands naturally erode with time, but climate change is speeding that process up, said Rob Young, a beach erosion expert at Western Carolina University. Rising sea levels make new areas of the coast vulnerable to major waves, and increased storm activity associated with climate change make those waves more common. Sea level rise also gradually moves shorelines back, which can lead to major property losses.
On a trip to Bull’s Island, South Carolina earlier this year, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell addressed the threat erosion poses to the South Carolina barrier islands.
“I’ve not seen a forest growing out of the beach like this, a boneyard beach as they call it,” Jewell said. “We do have erosion in a number of places, and you do have trees fall over – but not like this. We should be paying attention to what we’re seeing on the ground, we should be learning from that, we should be listening to the science.”
South Carolina isn’t the only state to experience a climate change-driven increase in erosion over the last several years. In Alaska, a combination of melting permafrost, sea level rise, melting sea ice and increasing incidence of floods have led to erosion that’s caused major problems for coastal residents. The coastal village of Newtok, Alaska may be completely underwater by 2017 — and it’s just one of the 86 percent of native communities in Alaska threatened by climate change’s effects. And in the past 80 years, Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of coastal marshes — which averages out to a football field’s worth of wetlands each day — to erosion, a result of sinking land and sea level rise.