Sea Level Rise in South Carolina
In February, 2017, I traveled to Edisto Island, South Carolina. Besides its famous plantations, I knew almost nothing about the island. Edisto lies just south of Charleston. I swung through on my way from Charleston to New Orleans.
Today, much of what made Edisto renowned has disappeared into the coastal woodlands and wetlands. Gone are the vast coastal cotton plantations. Edisto Beach remains the only economic lifeline for the island; tourism has replaced agriculture as the lifeblood of Edisto.
The island is relatively diverse, consisting of 56 percent white residents, 39 percent African American, with the remaining 5 percent either Latino, Native American, or of multiple races. However, across all racial divides, one common thread persists through the year-round residents: poverty. The median household income for year-round residents on the island was just $25,962. Nearly 21 percent of the year-round population lives under the poverty line.
Underlying the poverty, the falling rates of tourism, and the struggle to save the island's only public school, Edisto's greatest threat comes from the sea. Like so many coastal locales, Edisto stands to lose the most from the impending sea level rise fueled by climate change. As polar icecaps melt at a faster pace, global sea levels rise higher and higher. And current scientific data shows that due to the release of potent greenhouse gases from within melting icecaps, the rise in global temperatures may continue at an exponential rate regardless of potential falls in Human emission rates.
Couple rising sea levels with warmer sea temperatures from the melting of sea ice and the disruption of the Gulf Stream, and what we get is an ocean environment ripe for more destructive storms and hurricanes. And that's the last thing Edisto Island needs. The island's average elevation is just over seven feet above sea-level. According to NOAA, if sea levels were to rise just six feet by 2100, a fair estimate if emission rates aren't curbed ambitiously, Edisto Island would almost entirely be overtaken by the sea.
But even before the sea levels rise to swallow the island, the danger posed by coastal erosion brought on by storm surges is one that cannot be overlooked. In October, 2016, Edisto was slammed by Hurricane Matthew, which caused extensive damage on Edisto, washing away some 900,000 cubic yards of sand. Matthew followed Hermine, which roared to shore in early September.
When I arrived in Edisto Beach, I found the usually sleepy, off-season town in a state of chaotic work. A $17 million project to replenish the beaches of Edisto was well underway. Crews were working day and night to get the beaches ready for the tourists in the late Spring. The project consisted of a large dredging operation off the coast, pumping sand back to shore to replenish the beaches. Bulldozers then spread the sand out, pushing back the creeping sea. The work crews planned to also lengthen the rock groins that stabilize the sandy beaches.
I spent the better part of my day on Edisto watching the work. The dredged sand was pumped from the vessels offshore, down the length of a pipe that ran three miles down the beach. The sandy water exploded out from the piping, and the bulldozers pushed it into place.
The locals watched the work too. They didn't mind the inconvenience. They need this beach to be strong. They need the tourists to come to the beach. But for how much longer will these dredging operations cut it? How much longer will these short fixes provide safety to coastal residents? And what will happen when these temporary solutions fail?
Climate change is the most pressing reality of our time. Science has made that clear, and science cannot be combed through to support selected opinions. Whether public opinion, which overwhelmingly supports the notion, no, fact, that Humans are causing the vast majority of changes in the climate, can influence policy makers on this topic remains to be seen. However, for places where the sea creeps closer and closer with every passing Hurricane Season, for places like Edisto Island, time is running out.