The changing coast

Protecting coastal communities from rising seas and a changing climate

Climate change and sea level rise contribute to costly, chronic flooding in cities like Charleston and Norfolk. In North Carolina, the shoreline is swiftly eroding. Rising seawater jeopardizes everything from wildlife refuges to military bases.

And the storms that routinely pelt the coast—from summer squalls to ferocious hurricanes—are getting stronger, carrying more moisture, and unleashing more rain.

The southeastern coast is one of the nation’s most extraordinary natural treasures, but the barrier islands, salt marshes and historic shores are undergoing rapid changes. In the balance is the beauty and bounty that provides respite, recreation and commerce for Southerners and visitors alike.

Without action, the impacts of climate change, more powerful storms, and sea level rise will put our beaches at risk, threaten our communities with overwhelming floods, and upend economies that rely on coastal resources. But fortunately, there are steps we can take to meet these challenges.

So if we want to continue to live in this community to work in this community to play in this community, you’ve got to get serious about protecting wetlands just like this. If we continue to fill in them, if we continue to build, and then we’re going to flood our way right out of a thriving, vibrant community.

Andrew Wunderly, Charleston Waterkeeper

Protecting critical wetlands and marshes

Many southern cities were built over filled wetlands. That history can’t be changed, so it’s critical to protect what wetlands remain. An acre of wetlands can hold 330,000 gallons of water, so when wetlands are lost, also lost is that protection.

At the same time, coastal marshes and the vast array of wildlife that lives in them are at risk when seas rise, and we must set aside areas for marshes to adapt. When water gets too deep, marshes can actually move, or migrate, to slightly higher ground. But roads, housing developments and other infrastructure can block those migration spaces, eliminating critical habitat for shellfish, gamefish and waterfowl that support fishing and hunting industries. 

Safeguarding communities from flooding and storms

Not all of our Southern neighbors have the financial means to relocate when storms bear down, or when their homes become unlivable because of rising seas and frequent flooding. It is a critical and morale duty to help these communities adapt to rising seas, or help them relocate to safer areas.

We are working, often behind the scenes, to create policies that do just that. In South Carolina, we worked with key partners to help pass legislation to tackle flooding and adaptation. The new law, The Disaster Relief and Resilience Act, also establishes a loan and grant program for municipalities to purchase properties that routinely flood, and turn those properties into natural areas for flood storage. Programs like this can be a lifeline for vulnerable neighbors who are financially trapped in flood-prone areas.

In some Southern communities, land has been passed down through generations in a way that isn’t neatly recorded in traditional deeds. But this type of “heirs property” can be excluded from federal emergency assistance in disasters, or from the buy-back programs that are starting to take hold. We are working to make sure owners of heirs property are eligible for the kinds of financial assistance they might need.

Smarter solutions for development and infrastructure

Building in areas likely to flood is a recipe for costly catastrophes. Municipal planners must take into account how climate change is re-shaping the coast, and how quickly that is happening.

Too often, some towns and communities try to rely on temporary and damaging tactics like building seawalls and jetties on our Southern beaches, bays, sounds and tidal creeks. We are working to minimize this kind of shoreline armoring. Often, it accelerates erosion or dramatically alters the natural way sand moves up and down the coast. It may build a bigger beach in one section, but neighboring areas can be stripped almost bare, damaging critical wildlife habitats. Coastal armoring can also encourage development in areas where flooding and dangerous storm surge is likely, putting lives and property at risk.