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Rising sea levels threaten the lives and livelihood of those on a fragile U.S. coast

A ghost forest seen on Hunting Island, S.C.
A ghost forest seen on Hunting Island, S.C.

This is a story about a tree, a fisherman and a queen.

Each is profoundly connected to a South Carolina coastal community threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change. And each uniquely represents what's at stake: the lives and livelihoods of those who call this area home.

The signs of the impact of rising seas levels are both subtle and clear, and taken together, point to the looming crisis climate scientists have been describing — the kind that world leaders who gathered in Scotland at a global climate summit this week are trying to solve. Representatives from nearly 200 countries are negotiating efforts to cut global emissions to stem the rising sea levels. [Read about how drought compounded by climate change is affecting southwestern Colorado, another story in this reporting project.]

A tree slowly poisoned by salt water turns white

About an hour and half south of Charleston, S.C., a chalky white tree stands in the water on a beachfront in Hunting Island State Park. Bare branches stretch out in every direction, as if the Greek priestess Medusa had petrified herself and all the snakes moving on her head had turned to stone.

Glance up the shoreline, and there are countless dead, white trees. Scientists call it a ghost forest. It is created when high tides push seawater into woodland areas. The salty water slowly poisons the trees, turning them a bleachy white.

Lora Clarke, a Charleston-based marine conservationist working with Pew Charitable Trust, on Hunting Island, S.C.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Lora Clarke, a Charleston-based marine conservationist working with Pew Charitable Trusts, on Hunting Island, S.C.

"[It's] sort of breathtaking the way that you can look at it and see the direct impacts of sea level rise right here on the coast," says Lora Clarke, a marine conservationist with the Pew Charitable Trusts, an NPR funder.

The forests can be seen up and down the East Coast, Clarke says, and especially so in recent years. "Ghost forests have happened for thousands of years or so, but we're seeing more ghost forests occur at a faster rate than before," she says.

A Duke University study released earlier this year looked at the accelerating growth of ghost forests. It found that nearly 25 square miles of healthy coastal woodlands in the southeast withered into white shadows of themselves over a 35-year period starting in the mid-1980s. More than half of the new ghost forests emerged after 2011 as a result of drought and high tides driven by climate change.

As sea levels rise and salt water seeps into previously unaffected coastal flora and salt marsh areas, the plants wither, and only the thickest parts of trees remain.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
As sea levels rise and salt water seeps into previously unaffected coastal flora and salt marsh areas, the plants wither, and only the thickest parts of trees remain.

Ghost forests are perhaps the most striking signs of climate change on the South Carolina coast. Other signs of trouble require a more experienced eye to spot.

A fisherman with not enough bait

Fisherman Ed Atkins can tell you about climate change's effect by looking at his fish tanks.

He runs a bait shop not far from the ghost forest. He sells oysters and shrimp used by commercial and tourist fishermen. The shop has two big tanks that can usually hold about 40 pounds of live shrimp, but on a recent visit, the tanks are almost empty.

Ed Atkins, a Gullah fisherman and bait shop owner, launches his boat from Sams Point on Lady Island, S.C.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Ed Atkins, a Gullah fisherman and bait shop owner, launches his boat from Sams Point on Lady Island, S.C.
Climate change has impacted fishermen's capacity and schedule for harvesting seafood along the South Carolina coast.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Climate change has impacted fishermen's capacity and schedule for harvesting seafood along the South Carolina coast.

"Sometimes we just don't have enough. Like today, I don't have enough bait," he says.

Atkins sees that warmer water temperatures have made it harder to find shrimp and oysters in marshes and shallow waters, where they usually thrive. The state's Department of Natural Resources has not yet officially connected those dots; its research on the effect of climate change on fish, wildlife and marine resources is early and ongoing.

"You used to be able to go out and catch everything you needed in about 20 or 30 minutes, now, it takes you two or three hours," he says.

Ed Atkins poses for a portrait outside his bait shop on Lady Island, S.C.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Ed Atkins poses for a portrait outside his bait shop on Lady Island, S.C.

He is worried for his shop, which has been in his family for decades. Atkins, who just turned 70, promised his dad before he died that he'd keep it open as long as he could. But he's not sure how much longer he can keep going.

Climate change is affecting the area in other ways — from the fish species that fishermen who use Atkins' bait depend on to the salt marshes that protect the coast. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that even five years ago, warmer water temperatures were driving some fish species further north. That migration, the study says, could have a big impact on the fisherman in the south.

Climate change also erodes salt marshes, an important link between the sea and the land. These grassy wetlands serve as sea life nurseries.

"About 75 percent of our commercial and recreational fish species in South Carolina spend some portion of their life cycle in the salt marsh," Clarke says.

The marshes also act as guardians of the coastline. They absorb flood waters from intense storms and hurricanes, decreasing property damage by up to 20%, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The U.S. has approximately 3.8 million acres of salt marshes, most of them in the Southeast. NOAA estimates that the U.S. loses about 125 square miles of coastal wetlands each year from rising sea levels and development each year. That's about the size of Charleston, S.C.

"As sea level rises, the marsh will sort of naturally migrate upland and inland if there's room available. If there's not room available or flooding we will lose it, but we have to start planning now to make sure that room is available and to conserve those adjacent areas," Clarke says.

Salt marshes serve as natural barriers against flooding on the South Carolina coast, with one acre of marsh being capable of absorbing up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Salt marshes serve as natural barriers against flooding on the South Carolina coast, with one acre of marsh being capable of absorbing up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
Oysters are seen in the salt marsh on Hunting Island, S.C. Oysters are a natural water filtration system, and their beds help protect against coastal flooding.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Oysters are seen in the salt marsh on Hunting Island, S.C. Oysters are a natural water filtration system, and their beds help protect against coastal flooding.

The impact of sea level rise has started, but she says it's going to get worse.

"I think we're going to see it on a much larger scale in the future," Clark says, noting that sea level rise could be anywhere from four to seven feet. "That's a big difference for our coastlines."

And it will mean dramatic change in the lives of people who have lived along the water for generations.

A queen fights for legacy and history

The Gullah Geechee are descendants of enslaved Africans who lived along the coastline from North Carolina to Florida. They are farmers and fishermen, and their elected leader is a computer scientist named Marquetta Goodwine. Her tribal name is Queen Quet.

She's fighting to protect her community, the land and the water. She's been working with the U.N., federal and state officials on a plan that protects the coastline and a million acres of salt marsh. The plan takes in consideration the needs of developers, commercial fishermen and the tourism industry. Queen Quet wants to be sure her people are taken into account as well. The Gullah's family legacy and history is here on the coast, she says.

"You can't put a price tag on my ability to sit on my porch, hear the birds chirp, hear cicadas, look up at the sky, see the moon and know my ancestors did the same thing in the 1500s and 1600s on the same spot that I'm sitting on. There's no price that you can pay for that," she says. "We want to keep it in the natural environment that's going to be sustained for hundreds more years to come.

Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, at the St. Helena branch library on St. Helena Island, S.C. She points to overdevelopment in coastal communities as a factor exacerbating the effects of climate change.
/ Cameron Pollack for NPR
Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, at the St. Helena branch library on St. Helena Island, S.C. She points to overdevelopment in coastal communities as a factor exacerbating the effects of climate change.

But there's another problem: development on the coastline.

There's been about a 20% increase in development within a half mile of salt marshes since the mid-1990s, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. That concerns Lora Clarke because she says the marshes need room to expand so they can absorb additional water as sea levels rise.

"You want to think about how closely you're building to the marsh. Are you leaving enough of a buffer? Are you leaving room in the future for marsh to be able to migrate as sea levels move inland? Or are you filling marsh in to build new development?"

Queen Quet says that when it comes to climate change, development and conservation, it's possible to strike a balance.

"We've always known that there's enough on this land for everybody because we remember to leave enough for the next day," she says. "The question is whether we will remember to leave enough for the next generation."

Rachel Martin, Steve Mullis and Barry Gordemer reported, produced and edited the audio story.

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