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Living shorelines: Turning towards nature to address sea level rise

Sea level is on the rise, and the impacts of this can be seen all around southeastern North Carolina
Published: Feb. 23, 2022 at 2:51 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Sea level is on the rise, and the impacts of this can be seen all around southeastern North Carolina. From Canal Drive in Carolina Beach to downtown Wilmington, rising waters are causing very real problems for infrastructure and property.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the next 30 years, sea level is expected to rise at the same rate seen over the past 100 years.

Typically, bulkheads have been installed — a wall or sorts made to keep water out; however, according to experts, they’re not the most efficient way to protect the shorelines. That’s why there has been a push to use a new technique that is designed to mimic nature.

It’s called a living shoreline. It may not be obvious to the untrained eye, but the impacts are visible. They help restore natural wetlands like saltwater marshes and tidal creeks.

An artificial structure to help preserve nature

Doctor Lexia Weaver, a coastal scientist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation said bulkheads tend to destroy these natural features.

“What happens is that when the water comes up and hits that bulkhead, that energy has nowhere to go so it comes back with it and overtime you lose all of that important habitat,” she said.

The constant battering of waves against these structures carries out sediment, which causes the loss of natural wetlands — nature’s defense against encroaching waters.

RELATED: Study shows Wilmington’s nuisance flooding is getting worse

Mary-Margaret McKinney, director of coastal restoration at RS Shorelines explained how living shorelines can help.

“That energy hits the living shoreline — part of the wave energy passes through it, part of it passes over it,” said McKinney. “As it passes over it, sediment drops out of the water column because the wave has been slowed down. That allows the marsh to build up behind,” she said.

These artificial structures are meant to restore habitats and have positive impacts on other aspects of the environment as well, which is a good thing for seafood lovers.

“Anywhere that oysters grow, oysters will rapidly colonize the structure and form a living oyster reef,” McKinney said.

Reclaiming wetlands won’t stop sea level rise, but even a small marsh can have dramatic impacts on slowing down the damages from rising tides.

“Even a 10-foot wide marsh is going to slow down all of that wave energy incredibly, like 90% of the wave energy,” Weaver said.

Naturally, the cost of these projects is going to be a concern for some living on the coast, but McKinney said they cost less than a bulkhead, and even less than installing new granite counter tops. There are also a number of grants available through the state that help bear the cost of installing living shorelines. At the end of the day, each structure will be dependent on its size, but there are instances of homeowners paying just $5,000 to install one.

That’s just a fraction of the cost it would take to replace a home, or restore property damages from rising waters.

At the end of the day, the science is clear: sea levels are rising, but with efforts like these to restore wetlands we can keep our heads, and our homes, above the water.

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