Global climate study shows effects of sea level rise

By Stephanie Beard

Freshwater tidal forestA team of Clemson scientists is measuring the effects of global climate change on freshwater tidal forested wetlands. The team, based at the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science in Georgetown, is led by hydrologist William Conner.

Storm surges from hurricanes can push large amounts of sea water inland and leave salt in the soil for weeks. This can kill some trees and freshwater plants, but cypress trees can usually withstand brief exposure to higher salt concentrations.

However, scientists are noticing more severe and long-lasting effects as sea levels rise due to global climate change. Even cypress trees cannot tolerate this long-term change in salinity. As salt water pushes further inland, forested wetland plants die and the area becomes a salt marsh.

Conner’s research shows that some South Carolina coastal wetland forests are already changing to marsh as salt water intrudes into rivers. His study records salinity, water levels and tree growth in areas where salinity has increased, and compares those conditions to upstream forested wetlands that are not yet affected. 

Data from this study can help land managers make more informed decisions and could lead to recommendations on how to restore forested wetlands and preserve the flood control and habitat benefits they provide. 

For information: William Conner, 843-546-1013 ext. 227,