Reserve Data Tracks Climate Change Threats

Apr 26, 2021 | North Carolina, North Carolina, Prepared Communities, Reserves, What We Work For

A water quality monitoring station in one of the estuaries monitored by the North Carolina Reserve. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Reserve.

In October 2018, Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, causing $24 billion in damages and killing more than 50 people. But the dangers of the storm extended beyond the immediate wind, rain, and debris. Using data from the North Carolina Reserve, investigators tracked a tripling in infections of the deadly pathogen Vibrio vulnificus in the hurricane’s wake.

Data from the Reserve’s System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) showed that Florence’s heavy rains shifted the salinity of coastal waters into the ideal range for Vibrio, likely contributing to the spike in infection rate. Three North Carolinians died after exposure to Vibrio in the days following the storm. 

This graph shows the salinity ranges from a Reserve monitoring station near where Ron Phelps, a North Carolina man who died of Vibrio infection, was likely exposed in the days following Hurricane Florence. Credit: Elisabeth Gawthorp.

As oceans warm and storms grow harsher and more frequent, Vibrio infections are becoming increasingly common, even in areas they have never occurred before. In this article, Glenn Morris, an emerging pathogens expert at the University of Florida, calls Vibrio “an early warning system” for the kind of public-health crises that will keep arising from climate change.

Vibrio infections are quite climate sensitive,” said Morris. “Even a slight rise in temperatures can significantly boost their growth.”

Scientists call Vibriooften characterized as a “flesh-eating bacteria”a bellwether for climate change because it flourishes in warm brackish waters. V. vulnificus, the most deadly strain, kills one in every five people who contract it. Since 2007, South Carolina has seen a three-fold increase in Vibrio infections and North Carolina’s rate is 1.6 times greater. 

The North Carolina Reserve has been collecting standardized water quality and climate data on the coast since 2002. “The investigators approached us because we had some of the best data in the area,” said Byron Toothman, a monitoring technician at the Reserve. “The value of our data is that it stretches across many geographic regions, and it’s consistent in the way it is collected, processed, and handled.”

To assess public health risks driven by the impacts of climate change, high-quality, long-term environmental data is essential.The Reserve’s data not only supports science and research, but also natural resource management. The University of North Carolina Wilmington, for example, depends heavily on Reserve expertise for the management of their shellfish research hatchery life support system.

A sediment elevation table (SET) tracks the elevation of a marsh in the face of climate change-driven sea level rise.

The Reserve’s science and monitoring is complemented by a robust Coastal Training Program that provides tools, training, education, and support for local communities. Since Hurricane Florence, they have provided training on climate resilience for almost 400 local professionals, including real estate agents, marine contractors, engineers, and land managers. 

“The North Carolina Reserve seeks and values partnerships with organizations and communities in our local watersheds,” says Whitney Jenkins, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator. “By providing resources and training opportunities to improve coastal resilience to climate change impacts, we further the NCNERR’s mission while also meeting local needs.”


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