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Tribal Tribune

The student news site of Wando High School

Tribal Tribune

The student news site of Wando High School

Tribal Tribune

Lowcountry in too deep

Growing climate change threats flood area

Flooding has spiked. Sea levels have risen. Flood waters grip downtown.

The Charleston area has a front seat view to the effects of climate change. The impact of both climate change and the constant rise of sea levels increasingly affects towns along the east coast, especially Charleston. Alys Campaigne, a climate initiative leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center, helps communities prepare, anticipate, and adapt to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.

“We’re expecting to see as much sea level rise in the next 30 years as we did over the past century. It’s rising faster in our region… and that’s due to things like ocean currents and land subsidence that push more water onto our shores,” Campaigne said.

Living in a coastal area, experiencing tidal floods is normal, however the recent increase in flooded days has created many problems. The increase in flooding not only hurts the roads as they can not withstand salt water, but makes it harder for people to get places and causes businesses to close.

“So in addition to the sea level rise, we’re also seeing these tidal flooding events, just in terms of how people are experiencing it. And historically in the region…in the 50s, and 60s, [we would see] two or three days of big tidal flooding,” Campaigne said. “We’ve been seeing record-breaking and very consistent tidal flooding events in the past year. So in 2019, for example, we went from five or six to 89. And that means one out of every five days, there’s water issues that are causing us to have to rethink how we do our commutes, can we get emergency vehicles through areas and things like that.”

Rachel Hawes of the Coastal Conservation League stresses the impact of climate change and sea level rise on wildlife habitats such as salt marshes. Salt marshes play a key role in protecting Charleston from strong storm surges and flooding.

“The different types of habitats are shifting and moving as the sea levels rise. For example, salt marsh… that habitat, naturally with our tides, gets flooded during high tides,” Hawes said. “Then as that water drains out, during low tides, it becomes exposed. And that’s a cycle. But as sea levels rise, the draining out of the estuary area becomes less and less. So we see more and more flooding of that area.”

A ripple effect is caused when salt marshes start shifting. Not only does this movement affect the people living in these areas, but the wildlife and plant life either die off or are forced to move further inland.

“All of those plants and animals in the estuary are adapted to a habitat that is exposed to air… or flooded with water. And if they become less and less exposed to air, that impacts the way they can live. The salt marsh will start to actually shift and change, those plants will start to move and grow further and further upland,” Hawes said. “So thinking of that shoreline, we’ve usually got a tidal creek, you’ve got oysters, then you go out and you’ve got salt marsh, different plant species… you’ve got your land where you build houses on so that salt marsh will actually start to shift up into the land eventually. Animals that live within those habitats also have to adjust.”

Hawes has also noticed that the more growth and development that has taken place in Charleston has caused more flooding. With no place to go, the water seeps into the roads and overfills the drains.

“Then you think about the built environment, which is what Charleston is so much of where we’ve filled in wetlands and as those areas experience more and more flooding. We’ve got more flooding that comes onto our roads, as we see coming up from our storm drains. And that obviously then affects humans. So it goes up from there,” Hawes said.  “I think that people sometimes might forget that everything that exists on our roads, when it’s drains through those storm drains, or in the streets, and those are just tunnels straight out to usually a creek. And there’s no cleaning of that water. There’s no filtering. So whatever’s on the road or in the ground, or in the grass that runs off to the storm drains gointo that habitat.”

Similar to salt marshes, barrier islands offer protection for the mainland from strong storms and extreme tidal floods. The Isle of Palms is one of many barrier islands found along the coast. Like many barrier islands, Isle of Palms is a huge tourist attraction, but has suffered from recent climate change and sea level rise.

Isle of Palms mayor Phillip Pound said that recently the city started a sea level rise adaptation plan and is hoping to get results back from the first quarter soon. This will then help the town evaluate potential action plans and what to prioritize.

“With the erosion we’re having, particularly on the breach inlet up and in Wild Dunes… which are kind of the two historical hotspots here for erosion or higher tides and such. Breach inlet has just, really the last eight months, it’s been exceptionally high tides, the winds have been just right or wrong depending on your opinion. Tides have been much higher than predicted. So it’s made it really tough to be proactive from putting new beach on the sand or sandbags, or whatever you need to protect people’s property or maintain public access to the beach,” Pound said.

Not only are Isle of Palm’s beaches affected, but the towns and surrounding areas’ economies are affected as well. Being a huge vacation spot for locals and tourists, with unhealthy beaches, and inaccessible walkways due to flooding, impacts the economy negatively.

“Visitors that are repeat visitors and tourists of ours are mostly accustomed… knowing that the beach may be very healthy, or very narrow, depending on when they’re coming,” Pound said. “So I think it’s critical for the whole country to make sure our beaches are healthy… just from an enjoyment standpoint, and as well as a financial [standpoint].”

Projects such as beach renourishment costs millions of dollars, and take time to receive the permits needed for them. Pound says that Isle of Palms has done two beach renourishment and is applying for another, in hopes of receiving the funding for it soon. However, while focusing on the effects of climate change and sea level rise, Pound also focuses on the liveability of the city due to these problems.

“We spend a lot of money also on internal drainage infrastructure units to move stormwater quicker,” Pound said. “It’s just such a priority balancing act to make sure ‘how do you keep the beach healthy? How do you make sure livability is good? How do you handle the 20,000 people that come over?’”

With temperatures changing, stronger storms, higher tides, and more intense flooding, Charleston is experiencing new problems that affect both the land and economies.

“Some aspect of everyone’s lives is affected negatively by an unhealthy environment and is affected positively by a healthy environment. Whether you care about the plants and animals and the biodiversity…or… the economic impact that… happens with climate change, and all of these issues that we’re experiencing… but it’s humans kind of living in balance with nature,” Hawes said. “We are a part of nature, and we’re a massive component of it. Therefore, our lives are impacted by nature as well. So some part of your life is impacted, that you care about.”

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