North Carolina is home to 220,000 acres of salt marshes – a huge carbon sink and, potentially, a massive source of CO2.
North Carolina’s salt marshes consist of grasses that grow in the muddy zone by the ocean and are frequently washed over by the tides. These marshes act as a carbon sink, meaning they pull in and trap CO2 from the atmosphere at a rate of 250,000 metric tons per year – roughly the equivalent of the CO2 emitted by just under 55,000 cars in that same timeframe.
And currently, NC’s salt marshes hold a monstrous 64 million tons of carbon dioxide.
While the above is great news for the environment, as a result of climate change, there is a high risk that the marshes may turn from friend to foe over time.
Rising sea levels are the potential culprit, as they put seagrasses and marshes in danger of drowning or being washed away. The result of this will be the gargantuan amounts of trapped CO2 being released back into the atmosphere.
Given the rate at which sea levels are rising, scientists believe 134,000 acres of North Carolina’s salt marsh will drown or be lost to erosion by 2053. And by 2073, that area is thought to increase to 194,000 acres.
Normally, salt marshes thrive on rising sea levels – but at a moderate pace. The plants work tediously to keep up with the sea level rise by boosting the soil with their roots and increasing production.
In turn, this leads to more CO2 being captured and photosynthesized to support their growth. Hence, the moderate sea level rise is beneficial to these populations and contributes to the creation of so-called blue carbon habitats – aquatic ecosystems that capture and store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
However, if sea levels rise too rapidly, the salt marshes cannot keep up.
And not only will this lead to disappearing marshes and carbon being released into the air, it will also cause a chain reaction that results in dying forests, destroying even more natural carbon capture solutions.
As is illustrated in the state’s Climate Science Report, it is very possible that North Carolina’s sea levels may outpace the marshes’ growth rate by the year 2100.
The importance of protecting NC’s salt marshes is outlined in the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, according to which, by 2026, action must be taken by scientists, local governments and nonprofits to conserve these low-lying areas and protect them from development.