How might climate change affect North Carolina?

Average Temperature Plot

James Taylor, singer and songwriter of the popular song "Carolina in My Mind", once said of North Carolina,

"Chapel Hill, the piedmont, the outlying hills, were tranquil, rural, beautiful, but quiet. Thinking of the red soil, the seasons, the way things smelled down there, I feel as though my experience of coming of age there was more a matter of landscape and climate than people." (White 2001)

Residents of North Carolina are likely to agree with Taylor's thoughts about their state, although we'd add that North Carolinians are pretty cool too. The subtropical climate, beaches on the east coast and mountains to the west offer beautiful landscapes for residents as well as the throngs of tourists that visit the state every year (NC was the 6th most visited state in the country in 2010).

As with the rest of the U.S., the landscapes of North Carolina are changing with our changing climate. In a report to the University of North Carolina-Pembroke in 2008, one author stated, "While we cannot solve this looming problem ourselves, neither will it be solved if we ignore it. Whether intentionally or merely by making other choices." The general public, land managers, city planners and universities have the opportunity now to work with the changes taking place and prepare for future shifts. And many are doing just that. North Carolina, a coastal state, is susceptible to predicted climate changes such as increases in sea level, intensity of hurricanes, coastal erosion, and flooding. Coastal and mountainous areas of North Carolina are considered particularly vulnerable to changes in climate.

Rising sea levels are likely to overtake land, homes, beaches, and businesses as the water rises and moves further inland. Rising seas are also expected to inundate wetlands along the coast, altering the animal and plant populations that inhabit them. Coastal wetlands are popular hunting and fishing locals, especially since they serve as nurseries for young fish, insects, and other critters and are great places to find waterfowl. Loss of these important resources are likely to have economic impacts. A projected 770 square miles of coastal wetlands are likely to be lost altogether should sea levels rise the projected two to three feet expected over the next 100 years (Munger and Shore 2005).

Inland changes are also occurring. Warming temperatures are predicted to push southern hardwood and mixed pine forests further north to be replaced by savannas and grasslands. Longleaf pine and spruce fir forests are expected to decline in abundance in North Carolina and the animal populations that utilize these forest types will change too.

You and I, of course, will not go untouched by the changing climate either. Heat stress from rising temperatures and increased allergens from plants like ragweed and poison ivy (which are expected to do well with warmer temperatures) are just two of the concerns health professionals have regarding climate change in North Carolina.

What does this mean for Alligator River NWR?

Alligator at Alligator River

Climate change presents a particularly grand challenge for the staff of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR). Recall that a projected 770 square miles of coastal wetlands are likely to be lost in North Carolina over the next 100 years and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is mostly a coastal refuge! Rising sea levels will inundate many of the Refuge's existing marshes, creating new challenges for management.

Swallow-tailed kites, wood thrushes, and Swainson's warblers, as well as mammals such as black bears, depend on the large forested areas of the Refuge. Sea turtles, Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows, and black rails depend on the marshes. Loblolly pine, sweet gum, bald cypress and other plants Refuge volunteers, visitors, and staff are monitoring through Project BudBurst, also inhabit coastal and upland regions of the Refuge. Each species will adjust to climate change differently and therefore the management strategies for conserving these species for future generations will differ among them.

Luckily for the hunters, fishers, hikers, birders, and visitors, the Refuge staff has begun to strategize and think about ways to adapt their management of Refuge land and resources to account for expected climate change consequences. They are working with the research community to stay current with management strategies related to the changing nature and hydrology of the Refuge. They are also partnering with programs such as Project BudBurst and encouraging volunteers, visitors, and staff to proactively monitor changes in the plant populations at the Refuge. Your contributions to Project BudBurst will help Refuge staff better prepare for the changes ahead, ensuring that North Carolina continues to have great landscapes and a great climate for future generations to enjoy.


Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan. August 2008. U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region.

Munger, A. and M. Shore. 2005. Understanding Global Warming for North Carolina: Sound Science for Making Informed Decisions. Environmental Defense.

White, Long Ago and Far Away, p. 61. (Wikipedia)

2010 North Carolina Annual Report. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. Accessed 9 Apr 2012.

Data from The Weather Channel website for Manns Harbor, NC