MANNS HARBOR A vision of North Carolina's climate future lies down a dirt road that disappears into Croatan Sound.
The road leads to windswept Point Peter, on the eastern edge of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula, where the shore is crumbling.
The water is growing saltier as wind-driven ocean water invades the brackish sound, turning peat soils into gelatinous blobs and gnawing away 5 meters of shoreline a year.
Saltwater marshes like this one normally stay ahead of rising water by trapping sediments, building soil. Here sea level is rising too fast - 1.3 inches a decade - for that to happen. As saltwater intrudes into the peat under it, the marsh subsides, compounding the problem.
North Carolina loses 800 acres of coastal wetlands, sanctuaries for all manner of sea and bird life, to rising water and waves each year.
"We have so many species that depend on this area," said marine biologist Brian Boutin, who's leading an effort by the Nature Conservancy to slow Point Peter's changes to nature's pace.
It's a first step toward adapting to sea-level rise.
The national conservation group helped create the 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Point Peter, in 1984. Another 325,000 acres of wildlife refuges and state gamelands blanket the peninsula.
An ally is Duke Energy, which granted $1 million for the work.
"You can stand there on that shoreline that looks like coffee grounds and watch it wash away," said John Stowell, a Duke vice president for environmental policy in Cincinnati.
The saltwater doesn't stop at Point Peter's shoreline. The peninsula has been ditched and drained for decades, to dry it out for farming and logging. Saltwater is now flowing up hundreds of miles of canals, poisoning the plants near them.
Pines rooted in freshwater wetlands called pocosins have retreated from the ditches at Point Peter. As open water overtakes shoreline marshes, the marshes retreat inland, replacing the pocosins and hardwood forests.
Dennis Stewart, a refuge biologist for 16 years, has watched the forest recede from the shoreline by a couple of hundred yards to a half-mile.
"The forest is pretty much gone now," he said. "It's either sawgrass marsh or shrub."
Duke Energy has more than a conservation interest in slowing the impact of rising water.
Duke's coal-fired power plants make it the world's 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Destroying peat releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Protecting it could help Duke offset its emissions if the government regulates carbon, as the Environmental Protection Agency has assumed authority to do.
The Nature Conservancy is testing approaches at Point Peter that, if they work, could be applied elsewhere.
Four artificial oyster reefs protect the shoreline from waves that erode it. Swamp forest was re-established by planting 20,000 black gum and bald cypress trees. Control devices stop the inland flow of salty water and funnel fresh water back into drained areas.
If the experiment works, the shoreline will stop eroding and saltwater will no longer charge up the canals. Marsh plants and swamp forests will move back toward the sound instead of retreating.
"Our eyes," Boutin said, "are 50 years down the road."
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