Written by Heather Hillaker, a Staff Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center
We are in the midst of a global climate and biodiversity crisis, and the wood pellet and biomass industries, which claim to be a solution, are threats to both. Cutting down and burning growing forests for electricity actually emits more carbon dioxide than burning coal. These actions will increase atmospheric carbon for at least the next several decades—the exact time when we need to be drastically reducing emissions— while also degrading our native forests.
Wood pellets are made mostly from living trees, which are taken to pellet mills, ground into chips, dried, and formed into pellets. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, currently operates nine pellet mills throughout the southeast—six of which source a large amount of wood from North and South Carolina. Enviva acknowledges that 83% of its wood comes directly from forests, including forests within these two states (see map).
Impacts to Wetlands
Over the last decade, independent, on-the-ground investigations have uncovered that Enviva’s northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia mills often relied on mature trees taken from forested wetlands. Most of this harvesting is happening within the Coastal Plain, an area that was designated in 2016 as a global biodiversity hotspot because of its high species richness and endemism. Less than a third of this area’s native vegetation remains. Harvesting for pellet mills is exacerbating existing pressures on these forests and contributing to the degradation of these valuable ecosystems, including iconic wetland forests.
The wetland forests that dot the Carolina coasts are some of North America’s most valuable ecosystems. They improve water quality, protect against floods, and provide critical wildlife habitats— especially for migratory songbirds that are appreciated by even the most casual nature-lovers. But despite these immense benefits, most of these incredible forests have already been lost, and what remains now are subjected to clearcutting to produce wood pellets that are shipped overseas to be burned for electricity.
Impacts to Communities
The biomass and wood pellet industries aren’t just bad for forests, they hurt the climate and nearby communities too. Even though it is touted as “clean energy”, burning wood pellets from forests for electricity increases the amount of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere for 40-100 years, worsening climate change. Moreover, the pellet mills located throughout the southeast, including Enviva’s pellet mills in North and South Carolina, release harmful pollutants and dust negatively impacting the health of those living nearby. These mills are built primarily in low-wealth communities of color, where people are already overburdened by an unfair share of pollution.
Let’s be clear, the wood pellet and biomass industries are not clean energy, and as the U.S. moves towards real climate action, we must make sure that our policies promote genuine low-carbon renewable energy sources. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes as European countries that offer billions of dollars in government subsidies to these harmful industries. Our climate, forests, and communities depend on the U.S. making the right choice by excluding forest biomass from any clean energy policy.
Call to Action
You can help by signing this petition to tell President Biden that biomass is not a part of our clean energy future.
Heather Hillaker is a Staff Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in issues surrounding the use of forest-derived biomass for energy. Heather is actively involved in SELC’s UK, US, and state-level work on the issue, including efforts to strengthen protections for communities living near wood pellet plants.
One of the most important functions of wetlands is the ability to purify water and preserve water quality. Despite the integral role of wetlands in maintaining healthy ecosystems, they continue to be at risk of impacts by development, lack of legal protections, pollution, and the negative influences of climate change. Wetlands provide numerous ecosystem services; one of which being their ability to improve water quality and help in maintaining water quantity. These critical services are only expected to become more important as freshwater becomes an increasingly limited resource. It is therefore imperative that efforts are taken to preserve and restore our nation’s wetlands in order to retain our natural healthy waterways.
Though their geographic extent may not rival that of their terrestrial counterparts, coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds and wetlands store carbon at the highest rates per unit area of natural ecosystems. Blue Carbon refers to the carbon stored in biomass – such as leaves and roots – and deep sediments of coastal and marine ecosystems. Increasingly referred to as “blue” due to proximity of the ocean, the carbon stored in these ecosystems has both internal and external sources, allowing the system to act as a carbon sink for an extensive area.
Wetlands influenced by daily tides – known as tidal wetlands – are particularly important ecosystems when considering drawdown and storage of atmospheric and oceanic carbon. At low tide wetland vegetation utilizes and stores carbon from the atmosphere (CO2) during photosynthesis. When winter comes and this dense vegetation dies back, the carbon held within can be stored in the sediment. At high tide the vegetation slows oncoming waves allowing the sediment and carbon they carry to settle on the wetland surface.
Wetlands can vertically increase gaining height often in pace with sea level rise. Over time and under the right conditions, these wetlands have the ability to vertically increase, gaining height often in pace with sea level rise in a way man-made structures (such as bulkheads or sea walls) cannot.
This vertical growth provides the potential for un-saturated blue carbon burial and storage as sediment is deposited.
Existing carbon stores, and the ability of tidal wetlands to continue to store carbon over time are increasingly at risk from natural and human-caused stressors including urban development and sea level rise. These stressors can degrade wetlands over time resulting in a transition from carbon sink, to source. With global annual loss between 0.7-7%, coastal ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate and releasing an estimated 0.15-1.02 billion tons of once stored carbon back into the atmosphere each year.
As a graduate student in North Carolina, I wanted to quantify what degradation and loss of wetlands would mean for the carbon stored within the soils of my state’s wetlands. My graduate research focuses on how effects from sea level rise including increased saltwater intrusion and erosion will affect existing carbon stores and future storage capacity of tidal wetlands within the Cape Fear River Estuary (CFRE).
By determining where carbon stores are located within the estuary and how fast they are growing I can determine – along with the current rate of sea level rise in the region – which carbon stores are at risk of being degraded and transformed from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Carbon storage is increasingly becoming one of the most important ecosystem services our coastal ecosystems can perform. As sea level rise continues to pose problems for our nation’s coastal communities, the ability of wetlands to evolve over time – unlike man-made structures which stay stagnant – is an incredibly powerful tool. My hope is by understanding how carbon stores within wetlands of the CFRE function and are impacted by effects of sea level rise, results from my research can inform local governments, land managers and environmental policy makers, and ensure future protection of these wetlands as valued ecosystems for the carbon they store.
Giese, G.L., Wilder, H.B. & Parker, G.G. Hydrology of Major Estuary & Sounds of North Carolina. U.S. Geological Survey- Water Supply Paper 2221. 19-37.
McLeod, E., Chmura, G.L., Bouillon, S., et al. (2011). A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2. Frontiers in Ecology. 9:10:552-560.
McTigue, N., Davis, J., Rodriguez, A. B.,McKee, B., Atencio, A., & Currin, C. (2019). Sea level rise explains changing carbon accumulation rates in a salt marsh over the past two millennia. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 124.
Nittrouer, C.A., Sternberg, R.W., Carpenter, R. & Bennett, J.T. (1979). The use of Pb-210 geochronology as a sedimentological tool: application to the Washington continental shelf. Marine Geology. 31: 297-316.
About the Author
A graduate student at UNC-Wilmington, Mackenzie Taggart [she, her] studies coastal wetland dynamics as a part of the Coastal & Estuarine Studies Lab under the advisement of Dr. Devon Eulie. After graduating in 2022 with a Masters in Marine Science, she hopes to continue her work by developing science-based policies to protect these valuable coastal ecosystems and the carbon they store.
Climate change is the rise in average surface temperatures on Earth, mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change is causing intensifying storm activity, rising sea levels and creating more frequent floods and droughts in the Carolinas and worldwide. Recent, significant storm events in North and South Carolina include Hurricane Florence (2018), Hurricane Matthew (2016) and Hurricane Floyd (1999).
Increased storm activity is having a huge economic and environmental impact on our coastal and inland communities in the Carolinas. Hurricane Matthew caused an estimated $4.8 billion in damages. Hurricane Floyd caused between $7 and $9.4 billion, and the damage from Hurricane Florence was estimated to be nearly $17 billion – more than Matthew and Floyd combined
Wetlands play a critical role to help mitigate increased storm activity caused by climate change by retaining floodwater, stormwater and storm surges. Because of their critical importance during these storm events, wetland protection and conservation is essential to combating the effects of climate change in the Carolinas.
Climate change is here. As defined by NASA, climate change refers to long-term changes in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climate1. Climate change causes increased temperatures and storm activity, contributes to rising sea levels, elevates storm surges and causes more frequent flooding. The economic impact of recent, intense storm activity in the Carolinas has been devastating over the last 10 years. In 2018, Hurricane Florence produced a record storm surge of 9 to 13 feet and caused catastrophic flooding inland for days2. More than 50 people died across the region; 42 in North Carolina alone. North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper estimated Florence’s damage in North Carolina at $17 billion—an amount more than Hurricane Matthew and the previous historic hurricane, Floyd in 1999, combined2.
Flooding not only causes property damage, but also impacts public health and overall well-being in our communities3. Flooding can destroy a home, leaving it uninhabitable. There are also numerous hidden dangers in flood waters that create a public health risk: live wires, broken glass, and sharp metal as well as bacteria and other pathogens4.
There is general agreement amongst the scientific community that climate change is real. Also referred to as global warming, climate change is causing a rise in average surface temperatures on around the globe1. 2019 was the warmest year on record in North Carolina. In the Carolinas, scientists have observed an increase in annual average temperature by 1.0o F since 1895. In North Carolina, the last 10 years (2009 – 2018) represented the warmest 10-year period on record5. In Charleston, South Carolina, 2019 was the fourth-warmest year on record, which ended the warmest decade to date6. In addition to rising temperatures, climate change is intensifying storm activity, rising sea levels and causing more frequent floods and droughts worldwide. The Carolinas have experienced several major hurricanes in the last 5 years, including Hurricane Matthew (2016), Florence (2018) and Dorian (2019). These hurricanes caused widespread flooding in dozens of coastal communities, resulting in billions of dollars in property damage. Extreme flooding events occurred during hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018) in North and South Carolina5. Florence was a historic storm, breaking 28 flood records across North and South Carolina7. Some of the flooding records are over 75 years old, including the Northeast Cape Fear River near Chinaquapin, NC (78 years) and the Little Pee Dee River at Galivants Ferry, SC (77 years).
Wetlands play an absolutely critical role in mitigating the impacts of climate change, by retaining floodwater, stormwater and storm surges. Wetlands also store, or sequester, excess carbon in the atmosphere through photosynthesis8. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by wetland plants during photosynthesis and is retained in the plants’ biomass (roots, shoots, tree bark and leaves) and in the soil as soil organic matter.
When an area floods with water, surrounding wetlands act like a giant sponge; living plants and even the dead plant matter along with porous soils can absorb the extra water. Wetlands also help slow down the movement of floodwater to surrounding areas – which would otherwise impact homes and businesses. In coastal areas, marsh wetlands protect shorelines from erosion by buffering wave action and trapping sediments. They reduce flooding by slowing and absorbing rainwater and protect water quality by filtering runoff. Coastal marshes can also migrate landward (Figure below). Trapped sediments allow the marshes to rise in elevation, which helps mitigate the effects of sea level rise (SLR).Because of their ability to mitigate sea level rise, absorb rainwater, retain floodwater and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, wetland protection and conservation is essential in the Carolinas.
Wetlands can be protected and conserved in a number of ways:
By not developing or impacting wetlands (e.g., filling, ditching),
By placing wetlands under protective easement (e.g., conservation easement).
If you live on waterfront property, wetlands can be protected by installing a “living shoreline” (see photo below) – a mix of plant roots, sand and stone instead of man-made structures, like retaining walls, to stabilize the soil.
Climate change isn’t going away. Climate change intensifies storm activity, and scientists predict an increase in tropical storm frequencies from 1-10% in coming years10. Wetlands play a critical role to help offset the impacts of climate change by retaining floodwater, stormwater and storm surge. Wetlands also hold tremendous value as a climate change mitigator through their ability to sequester carbon within the organic content in the soil.
The impacts of climate change on local communities can be significantly lessened by protecting local wetlands. The can be done by:
Avoiding the development or impact of wetlands (e.g., filling, ditching);
Avoiding wetlands if planning a home, building, shed or farm field expansion; and
By placing wetlands under protective easement (e.g., conservation easement).
Wetlands can be protected by installing a “living shoreline” (see photo) to stabilize the soil – a mix of plant roots, sand and stone instead of man-made structures, like retaining walls.
There are a number of existing wetland protection programs in place in the Carolinas, and these programs greatly benefit from volunteer contributions and involvement:
Michener, W.K., E.R. Blood, K.L. Bildstein, M.M. Brinson and L.R. Gardner. Climate Change, Hurricanes and Tropical Storms, and Rising Seal Level in Coastal Wetlands. 1997. Ecological Applications, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 770-801.
C. Kozak, “Restoration Work – A Test for Carbon Farming,” Coastal Review Online, 01-Aug-2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.coastalreview.org/2019/01/restoration-work-a-test-for-carbon-farming/. [Accessed: 11-Feb-2020].
Heather Patti, PWS is a Senior Ecologist and Project Manager at TRC Companies, specializing in wetland and stream delineation, permitting and endangered species assessments for the renewable energy industry. Heather is a proud mother of 2 boys, Ben and Wyatt, and in her free time enjoys hiking, camping, botanizing and kayaking. She is a terrible fisherman.
To everything there is a season. The lives of most amphibians are particularly seasonally oriented. Amphibian literally means “double life” or “both lives,” referencing the dependence of these animals on both land and water. It’s not precisely true. Some amphibian species are entirely aquatic and some are exclusively terrestrial, defying the very definition of amphibian. But except for the fully terrestrial plethodontid salamanders in the genera Aneides and Plethodon, all amphibians in the Carolinas depend on either wetlands or permanent water for breeding.
Every amphibian species has a different life cycle and survival strategy. Some possess extreme seasonal adaptability, potentially breeding whenever weather conditions are favorable. Others breed at very specific times of year—some only in winter, others only in spring, and still others only in summer. This seasonal partitioning is one of many strategies serving to reduce competition, allowing multiple species to coexist. Fall is often thought of as a slow time or “down time” for many species, and this does include some amphibian species. But for others, fall is the most important time of year.
One obligate fall breeder is North Carolina’s official state salamander—the marbled salamander, Ambystoma opacum. Salamanders in the family Ambystomatidae are collectively called “mole salamanders” because the adults are fossorial, spending most of their lives in burrows on land. Most mole salamanders have life cycles like those of our frogs and toads—they lay their eggs in water, the eggs develop into aquatic larvae, and the larvae develop into terrestrial juveniles. All six mole salamander species in the Carolinas (marbled, spotted, mole, tiger, Mabee’s, and frosted flatwoods) are heavily dependent on fish-free, ephemeral wetlands for breeding. While most deposit their eggs in these wetlands, usually in winter or early spring, marbled salamanders switch things up a little, moving into their breeding sites on rainy nights in late summer or early fall. They utilize a variety of ephemeral wetlands, including floodplain pools, borrow pits, and even ditches and logging ruts, but high-quality upland vernal pools provide the best breeding habitat. Males move into the breeding sites first, sometimes as early as late August. The females follow, usually in September or October. Typically, the pools are bone-dry when they arrive. Not only does this fail to disappoint the salamanders—it’s just what they’re hoping for. They will mate beneath surface litter in the dry pools, the male depositing a sperm packet called a spermatophore and the female retrieving it with her cloaca and retaining it internally to fertilize her eggs as they are deposited. She selects a log or other sheltering object in the dry pool basin and deposits her eggs in a cluster underneath. Then comes a waiting game. She remains with the eggs, attending them until fall or winter rains flood the pool, whereupon she abandons them and returns to her terrestrial burrow. The eggs hatch quickly once inundated, and the aquatic larvae begin developing with a head-start over the other species using the pool later that winter or spring.
Marbled salamanders are not the only fall breeders. The rare frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum), still persisting in scattered localities in the South Carolina Lowcountry, typically breeds from October to December. This species also deposits its eggs terrestrially—although usually unattended—amid vegetation in the dry basins of ephemeral wetlands. Tiger and Mabee’s salamanders also may breed as early as October or November, or as late as March, depending on weather. They deposit their eggs (gelatinous masses for tigers, single eggs attached individually to leaves for Mabee’s) in water, so the ponds they use (often Carolina bays) must be flooded before they can breed. During droughts, they may miss breeding for a year, or even several consecutive years.
Several other amphibians that usually breed in winter or spring, can breed opportunistically in fall if conditions are favorable, especially following hurricane rains. These include the southern leopard frog, Carolina gopher frog, pine woods treefrog, eastern spadefoot, eastern newt, and little grass frog. In some (leopard frog, gopher frog, newt), the larvae will live in the pond all winter. But spadefoot tadpoles develop so rapidly that they will transform and leave before freezing weather, even if breeding occurs as late as October. Some plethodontid salamanders, including mud, red, two-lined, dwarf, and Chamberlain’s dwarf, may mate in fall, although their eggs are laid later in the winter. They are therefore often active on rainy autumn nights.
Fall may be a winding-down time for some creatures, but for certain amphibians it is a new beginning. On every day of the year, there is something important happening in our wetlands!
About the Author
Jeff Beane is the Herpetology Collections Manager at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC. His research focuses on gathering basic information on the natural history, geographic distribution, and conservation status of all reptile and amphibian species in North Carolina. More Info.
Carolina Wetlands Association and NC WRRI will host a Virtual Annual Conference session on wetlands research in North Carolina. The free webinar will offer updates on ongoing studies, as well as news on how wetlands are gaining further protections so they can continue to provide valuable ecosystems services.
Michael Burchell, NC State University, Removing detritus to rehabilitate older constructed wetlands used in wastewater treatment
Melinda Martinez, NC State University, Greenhouse gas emissions from standing dead trees in coastal forested wetlands
Brock Kamrath, NC State University, Preliminary assessment of nitrogen treatment in a tertiary constructed wetland following detritus removal
Winter and early spring is an important time for wetlands across North and South Carolina. First, wetlands are easier to find in the winter with high rainfall and no vegetation growth allowing water to sit at the surface. This standing water provides needed habitat for migrating birds and breeding amphibians. Also, lack of leaves and pesky mosquitoes make winter the perfect time to explore the different types of wetlands across the landscape.
Water Level (a.k.a. Wetland Hydrology)
Wetlands are defined by the amount, duration, and occurrence of standing water or saturated soil (referred to as wetland hydrology). Non-tidal wetlands like headwater wetlands, riverine swamps and pocosins fill with water in the winter and early spring until plants and trees start to grow and pump the water out to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. If you explore a wetland in the winter, you may need to wear rubble boots to keep your feet dry.
Import Habitat for Migratory Birds
Wetlands across North and South Carolina provide refuge in the winter for migratory birds like snow geese and tundra swans that fly south to avoid harsh winters in the Northern US and Canada. The loss of wetlands across the Southeast US has forced some species to adapt by feeding in fallow agriculture fields. Luckily, many state and federal lands across the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas provide vital habitat for these birds and create opportunities for us to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals.
Wetlands are also critical habitat for many reptiles and amphibians because they depend on water for part of their life. Most amphibians lay eggs under water or on moist land. Once the eggs hatch, the baby amphibians must live in water until they form lungs and leave the water as adults. Eggs of some species are laid in the fall and survive in a gel-like substance until wetlands fill with water. Even as adults, wetlands are an important source of food for amphibians. Step carefully and keep your eyes looking down for signs of salamanders and other amphibians. To learn more about these creatures, join us at the NC Museum of Natural Science’s Reptile and Amphibian Day on March 14.
Go Explore a Wetland!
Wetlands in the winter are working just as hard as they are the rest of the year and provide opportunities to see species that you can’t see other times of the year. Here are some resources to help you find a wetland near you :
Wednesday, November 28, 2018 from 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
Come learn about the Carolina Wetlands Association and the work the organization is doing to advance the understanding, protection and enjoyment of wetlands throughout North and South Carolina. Our 2019 calendars featuring our Wetland Treasures, magnets, and t-shirts will be available during the event.
AGENDA 5:30 Networking Time
6:00 Guest Speaker: Derb Carter, Southern Environmental Law Center
Mr. Carter will discuss the status of proposed changes the Waters of the U.S. rule and what that means for wetland protection and restoration.
6:30 Overview of the Carolina Wetlands Assocation
Learn about our efforts to get a Ramsar wetland designation in North Carolina, the Wetland Treasures of the Carolinas Program, and our effort to issue a State of the Wetlands report.
7:00 More Networking Time
7:30 Meeting Ends
Food and drinks will be provided! Please register so we know you are coming.
Prior to European colonization of North America, beaver (Castor canadensis) were abundant throughout most of the continent. Estimates of pre-colonization beaver populations are between 60 million and 200 million individuals, with at least 20 million beaver-built dams. By the year 1900, beaver had been extirpated from the eastern half of North America and the species was hanging on by small remnant populations in the west.
Reintroductions of beaver had begun in the southeastern U.S. by the 1940s. With few predators and laws regulating hunting, beaver populations in North American have rebounded. By 1983, beaver were present in 80 of 100 counties in North Carolina but were still largely absent from the Broad, French Broad, Catawba, and Pasquotank river basins—mainly the Charlotte area and the region directly to the west and north of it.
The majority of studies on beaver in North America have been conducted in the northern states and Canada. Larger scale effects found by these studies may be applicable here in the south, but many of the species-specific observations are irrelevant due to the difference in plant species between the northern and southern latitudes. This review of the literature on the impacts of beaver includes the handful of studies conducted in the southeastern U.S.; larger scale patterns observed at northern latitudes will also be discussed, but species-level observations from northern studies will only be included if they are relevant to the southeastern U.S..