MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So we've been talking about all the people who come to visit our region. But you know who else loves to visit this place? Wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of birds visit these parts or near these parts to rest while they migrate halfway across the world. But in part two of WAMU environmental reporter's, Sabri Ben-Achour's series on sea-level rise in our region, he tells that rising waters mean fewer places for these wild visitors to stop off.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Along the edge of a marsh along the eastern shore of Maryland, the grasses give way to mud and then more mud.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
It's going to be muddy. Yes, you need chest waders.
MS. SUSANNE BAIRD
You're going to sink up to your butt if you walk out there.
And then, muddy water as pointed out by Susan Baird and Matt Whitbeck.
I’m Susanne Baird. I'm the refuge manager for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
MR. MATT WHITBECK
And I'm Matt Whitbeck, wildlife biologist here at Blackwater.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has forests, waterways and currently about 8,000 acres of marsh. Once upon a time, Whitbeck says, the area used to have 13,000.
In 1933, when this refuge was established, this was a broad, vast almost prairie like expanse of sedges and grasses that are just critical to wetland dependent species and now all you see is a vast expanse of shallow open water habitats.
The reason, sea level is rising. Tide gauges around the Chesapeake have measured it and the geology of the region is such that the ground is sinking. Conservative measurements put the water level rise so far at a foot every 100 years. Striking aerial photos show this lake springing into existence from the 1930s to the 1950s to 2005.
It is amazing. There are places, a lot of places you can go on this refuge out in that open water you running a boat across the shallow water and the boat is bumping in stumps.
We're talking tree stumps, as in parts of that lake used to be forest.
And those stumps are still there. It's happened so fast that those stumps haven't decayed. I mean, it's phenomenal the rate at which these habitats are changing.
Humans made this significantly worse when they introduced the Nutria, an invasive giant swamp rat from South America used for its fur. It ate the very root system out from under the marshes making them even more susceptible. The Nutria has just about been exterminated, but for the creatures that belong here, all the muddy water is a problem. Whitbeck points to a line of about 5,000 birds a few hundred feet away.
The snow geese in the background, that's most of the chatter. Then you have a few tundra swans up here that are kind of talking amongst themselves.
250 bird species, ducks, swans, bald eagles call this place home or at least stop by to visit while migrating.
Hundreds of thousands of birds that come through here at various times of year. We typically winter, you know, 11,000 to 15,000 Canada geese. Another 4,000 or 5,000 snow geese and maybe, you know, 15,000 - 20,000 ducks at various times a year.
With less space to feed, there are fewer birds than before. Back in the '30s there were more Black Ducks here than anywhere south of Labrador, Canada. There's nothing like those numbers around now. Many of the tundra swans now over winter in North Carolina and Virginia and even fish don't do well in the murky, muddy water that's overtaking the marshes. There's little in the way of underwater plants to shelter them.
This is the future for the eastern shore, yes.
Stephen Gill is a chief scientist with NOAA's National Ocean Service, where they've been measuring sea-level rise for a 100 years.
MR. STEPHEN GILL
A large part of that eastern shore of Maryland if you're on the Chesapeake Bay is very low-lying marshland. I mean, it's hundreds and thousands of acres of marsh all very low-lying that are at risk.
In principle, marshes can move to higher ground as water rises. But if the water rises too quickly like it has at Blackwater, the marshes just can't keep up. They no longer hold the soil down and the low-lying shore just unravels like a sweater. Plus, Gill says in a lot of areas on the eastern shore there's just not that much higher ground to migrate to. He can't predicate how much of the shore will disappear because different scientists predicate different trends in sea-level rise. Some say a foot in a 100 years, others say five feet. But he says...
There's no trends going down.
Back at Blackwater refuge manager, Susanne Baird is not giving up.
We know we can build marsh.
Manmade restoration, though not always economical, is possible.
Part of this marsh along the fringe of this forest here is actually built. We did that utilizing the dredge material out of this area right here. We pumped it back in there and planted and it came back.
Biologist's here are trying everything. Hay bales to hold in dredge material, replanting aquatic grasses, they even burn the marshes every year.
Burning these marshes on a regular basis actually encourages a healthy root system, which prolongs the longevity of the marsh.
The idea is not necessarily to rebuild those lost 5,000 acres of wetland but to at least give what's left time to move if it has a place to move to, says Whitbeck.
These are changes that a lot of coastal habitats on the eastern seaboard are going to face eventually. So it really gives Blackwater an opportunity to be a role model on how to adapt to these changes.
This, after all is the future. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
To see some pictures of Blackwater including those aerial photos Sabri mentioned, go to our website, metroconnection.org.
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