David and Goliath: Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Rising Sea Levels in North Carolina

By Rachel M. Gregg

I woke up to NPR's Morning Edition story about one of our favorite adaptation projects on CAKE in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary in North Carolina. NPR interviewed some volunteers and our friends, Brian Boutin (TNC) and Mike Bryant (USFWS), about the project. 

Of the various "climate goliaths" at work on our shorelines, sea level rise is one of the biggest. We discuss some specific examples of sea level rise and related impacts in our recent report; for example, sea level rise may cause saltwater inundation of wetlands and barrier islands, salinization of water supplies, and increased erosion and flooding that will affect coastal infrastructure. 

Volunteers at Alligator River NWR - John Warner/TNC
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is addressing these possible effects through a pilot project and partnership between the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The project is evaluating the effects of different adaptation strategies on areas impacted (or likely to be impacted) by sea level rise. The strategies include constructing oyster reefs to buffer shorelines from waves and storm surges, restoring the natural hydrologic regime and associated wetland systems, and planting salt- and flood-tolerant species. By testing these strategies and employing adaptive management techniques, they are, as NPR puts it, "learning what works — and what doesn't work — in their struggle to fight back the sea."