The outer edge of the Southern US coastal plain is becoming increasingly vulnerable. Lower-lying parts of this region, which are characterized by extensive freshwater-dependent ecosystems, are seeing significant impacts from coastal storms and flooding. In the short term, ocean waters are already penetrating and influencing freshwater-dependent coastal landscapes due to a combination of human and natural factors. This landward movement of salinity from the coast onto the coastal plain or “saltwater intrusion” represents a major source of economic, social, and environmental change for many coastal landscapes. The salinization of surface waters and adjacent lands may lead to significant reductions in crop and timber yields in managed ecosystems, significant declines in ecosystem carbon sequestration in unmanaged ecosystems, and degradation of coastal water quality due to extraction of soil nutrients by sea salts.
The viability and productivity of these coastal landscapes, now and for decades to come, hinges largely on a sophisticated understanding of the coupled human and natural processes influencing salinization of surface waters and adjacent lands.
This project focuses specifically on saltwater intrusion across the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula of North Carolina, and it will accomplish the 3 primary goals of NSF Coastal SEES: First, the project will provide a comprehensive toolset to enable place-based, system-level understanding of coastal systems at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Second, it will yield outcomes with predictive value in coastal systems that are easily understood by stakeholders while representing complex interactions between climate, hydrology, land use, and ecological processes. Third, by focusing on how information influences individual preferences, the project will identify pathways by which outcomes could be used to enhance coastal ecosystems and resident livelihoods. Together, these activities will help guide investments and flooding management in this region and similarly affected regions over the next several decades to centuries.
North Carolina State University has an additional, related research project in this study area. Click here for more information about the “SALT” project.