Cape Island cited as climate symbol

The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is being overwashed by the rising sea.

CAPE ROMAIN — The sign on the post tells it all: No pets allowed. The sign was hung to protect shorebird and sea turtle nests on a remote beach in the wildlife refuge. The post is now in the ocean.

The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is shrinking. The 64,000-acre island seascape refuge northeast of Charleston is being overwashed by the rising sea faster than its sands can re-form inland. The flooding threatens a singular habitat for a host of species. For example, the refuge is maybe the best nesting area in the Southeast for sea turtles.

Today, the remote islands’ predicament becomes a poster child for Earth Day. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will launch a 50-day, 50-state series on the real-time impacts of climate change, “The Climate of Conservation.”

“Combined with other resource stressors, such as urbanization, invasive species and water scarcity, climate change is disrupting the natural systems upon which people and wildlife depend,” said David Eisenhauer, of Fish & Wildlife, in a news release.

The story centers on Cape Island, near where the post stands off Sandy Point. That island alone holds more than one-third of some 3,000 sea turtle nests in South Carolina this year. Nearly 25 percent of it has been overwashed since 1954.

On Bull Island, south of Cape Island, 20 to 25 feet of shoreline is disappearing per year. A levee has been rebuilt twice back in the dunes for a brackish water impoundment on the island’s edge because the impoundment is habitat for hundreds of wading birds, waterfowl and alligators. There’s no longer any dune shoulder left to attach the levee to.

“I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it disappear for 18 years,” said Chris Crolley of Coastal Expeditions, who has run the ferry and leads kayak trips to Bull and other islands. “I’ve seen vehicle roads and trails we’ve driven down for years gone overnight. Beaches where I used to teach are now I don’t know how far out in the water.”

Crolley wasn’t surprised to hear the report will lead off the Fish & Wildlife series.

“This is the issue. It’s much bigger than just Cape Island,” he said. He quotes a wildlife officer he heard speak about climate warming, “The science is in. Water levels are rising and we are contributing to that with our carbon emissions. There are people who believe it and people who don’t. The people who don’t, we call ‘science intolerant.’ ”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.