Saltwater intrusion a ticking time bomb for NC farms

East Carolina University graduate students Trevor Burns, left, and Tyler Palochak check groundwater monitoring equipment on a farm near Engelhard, N.C., in January. Photo: Eamon Queeney/The Washington Post

As climate change is causing sea levels to rise, this salty water’s encroachment inland means that drinking water, native plant species, and agriculture are all coming under threat. The Washington Post reported that “rising seas, sinking earth and extreme weather are conspiring to cause salt from the ocean to contaminate aquifers and turn formerly fertile fields barren. A 2016 study in the journal Science predicted that 9 percent of the U.S. coastline is vulnerable to saltwater intrusion — a percentage likely to grow as the world continues to warm.” For farmers in places like North Carolina, saltwater intrusion is quickly costing millions of dollars in lost crops as sea level rise coupled with a string of powerful hurricanes have ravaged their fields and have left them scrambling for solutions.  

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, North Carolina is especially vulnerable to sea level rise for several reasons. Firstly, the land has very little slope, meaning that even small increases in sea level result in a wide expanse of coastal land being inundated and lost. In addition, while sea level is rising globally due to warming, the coastal land in this area is slowly sinking due to tectonic forces, so the relative sea level rise is larger here than in places where the coastline is stable or rising. Thus the current rate of sea-level rise in this area is about twice the global average.

In addition to this, the Washington Post reported that:

Climate change, whether NC lawmakers want to admit it or not, presents an enormous threat to North Carolina’s economy and especially its agricultural sector. North Carolina’s agricultural industry, including food, fiber, and forestry, contributes $84 billion to the state’s economy, accounts for more than 17 percent of the state’s income, and employs 17 percent of the workforce.

Why This Matters: Saltwater intrusion as a result of sea level rise has also been affecting California’s fertile valleys and has forced farmers and scientists to race against the clock to find a solution. While researchers are still trying to understand the specific dynamics of this intrusion the best way we can slow it down is to drastically act to reduce carbon emissions and help slow climate change. In North Carolina, state lawmakers have routinely ignored and tried to bury the findings of scientists indicating the state’s vulnerability to climate change and especially sea level rise. Not only will climate change deliver a blow to sectors of our economy like agriculture but we will have to grapple with how to feed ourselves as less farmland will remain arable. 

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