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Last summer I was aboard Jud Kenworthy’s skiff in the Back Sound near Beaufort on a searing hot day, reporting for CPP’s series Changing Tides. The retired scientist and I were motoring to examine patches of seagrass along North Carolina’s central coast. The submerged vegetation, which is under extreme stress due to climate change, serves as a nursery habitat, providing food and shelter for a range of organisms from crabs to flounder.
Kenworthy committed his career at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to mapping and studying aquatic vegetation. He explained during our excursion that seagrass is the driver of health of coastal fisheries. “If you don’t have seagrass,” he told me, “you’re going to lose these fisheries.”
Nearly a year later, I was having nearly the exact same conversation, but this time with wildlife biologist Marquette Crockett of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Rather than enjoying a warm breeze in my face at sea level, this past April I was shivering at North Carolina’s other extreme in a harsh, subfreezing gale at 6,000 feet on Roan Mountain. Our discussion was about inland islands of spruce-fir forest. Like seagrass, the unique forests are habitat to rare plants and animals and are also threatened by climate change. “If you lose the spruce,” she said, “we’ll lose this set of species.”
I presume this conversation is playing out about pockets of rare habitat all over the world. My reporting on climate change separated by a year and 6,000 feet in altitude, however, is a blunt statement of just how a warming climate is impacting North Carolina’s beloved and unique places with long-term consequences for plants, animals and humans that value their existence.
While there’s a growing acceptance among Americans that the climate is warming (72% of Americans, according to a 2021 Yale poll), there still may be a perception among many that it’s far off in the future and there’s still time to discover adaptations or solutions.
Understandably, the observation that our forests, coastal habitats and climate are out of whack isn’t obvious in real time. Look in any direction in summers in the mountains, and the vistas are lush and deep green in every direction. And, seagrass is virtually invisible to humans since it spends most of its time underwater.
I find that the challenge in reporting about climate change and our natural systems is that they occur on a vast scale in time and space. As a result, it’s challenging to distill and explain the impact of climate on forests or coasts in a relatable and meaningful way.
Land managers and scientists, such as Kenworthy and Crockett, are often among the first to witness changes to the resource. Though vital to report the data, just explaining that temperatures in the mountains are 1 degree above average may reinforce the belief that climate change is far off in the future.
Their observations help, I believe, readers relate to the impact of a warming climate in stark terms. Despite the dire warnings regarding seagrass and spruce-fir forests, the work, observations and solutions proposed by folks on the front lines of climate change also convey a hopeful tone of progress that I hope comes through in their stories.
This essay was originally published in June 4, 2022 in the Weekend newsletter. Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack Igelman is the lead environment reporter for Carolina Public Press. With a master’s degree from Montana State University, where he studied natural resource economics, Jack’s main interest is in conservation and environmental stories that focus on the people, places and institutions involved with managing the state’s natural resources. Co-author of ”Trekking the Southern Appalachians” and currently teaching college-level economics, Jack’s reporting has appeared in dozens of local, regional and national publications. He lives in Buncombe County. Read more by Jack.
Jack, you’ve done an excellent job in this article capturing the conundrum faced by everyone who discusses climate change. Without those observed and predicted changes smacking people in the face every morning as they wake, it’s difficult if not impossible, to convince people about the consequences of what humanity has already done to the environment. The damage unfolding now doesn’t address the exacerbating impact resulting from continuing to pollute the atmosphere.
While the effects worsen unabated over the years the damage grows much more widespread and difficult to ameliorate. Thanks for your regular and excellent reporting on environmental matters affecting NC and elsewhere.