Far out in North Carolina

The extensive salt marshes on the Outer Banks of Carolina offer ideal conditions for unravelling the mysteries of sea level change during past centuries. Here is a short report from our field work there – plus some comments on strange North Carolina politics as well as two related new papers published today in Nature Climate Change.

The Outer Banks of Carolina are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea-level rise, partly because the land is subsiding and the banks are naturally moving landward. On the ocean front, land is continually being lost.

At 11.20 AM we get a walky-talky call from the research vessel Stanley Riggs which anchors a bit offshore from us: a few meters behind us is a shark in the water they say. They’ve been observing it through their binoculars. We haven’t noticed a thing and turn around, but only the student Ray catches a glimpse of the fin before it disappears. We’re standing on a bit of peat surrounded on three sides by water, drilling a core. Sharks don’t bother us – but the people on the ship are worried about our divers who plan to go in the water shortly. We don’t see the shark again – only little snakes elegantly gliding past through the water, heads above the surface, and some crabs, a popular local delicacy.

R/V Stanley Riggs lands our team at Sand Point.

To us as onshore crew, alligators would be far more interesting than sharks. Last week, not far from one of the study sites a man was injured by an alligator. My colleagues reassure me: alligators are nothing to worry about, as long as you can run faster than the slowest person in the group. But everything looks as peaceful as it can be now. The sun glitters on the lagoon, every now and then a group of pelicans patrols over our heads and convective clouds are billowing near the horizon. Sometimes we hear thunder rolling in the distance, but it stays dry all day. What a contrast to the previous day! A cold wind and constant rain bothered us and a series of technical failures meant that we did not even bring a useable core home. A dozen people worked a whole day in vain. (No hint that day of the fact that this May was the warmest on record in the Northern Hemisphere!)

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