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Climate change is having an adverse effect on South Carolina's Low Country


How do we save the planet? That's effectively the question for world leaders meeting this week.


Representatives from almost 200 countries are meeting in Glasgow for a global summit on climate change.

KING: And so this week, our co-hosts brought us stories from two parts of the U.S. where the changing climate is threatening to change the way people live forever.

INSKEEP: A Martinez visited a place in Colorado where there's not enough water.

KING: And today, Rachel Martin has this from South Carolina's Low Country, where sometimes there's just too much.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This is a story about a fisherman, a queen and a tree. Let's start with the tree. It's got a huge trunk that's turned mostly white, bare branches stretched out in every direction. Imagine if Medusa had petrified herself and all the snakes moving on her head had turned to stone. That's what this tree looks like. And then I look left, and the entire coastline is this otherworldly landscape filled with dead white trees. Biologists call it a ghost forest.

LORA CLARKE: I find it sort of eerily beautiful.

MARTIN: We're here in Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina with Lora Clarke. She's a marine conservationist with the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also happens to be an NPR funder.

CLARKE: Originally, these trees were not underwater. But slowly, as sea level has risen, it's taken over those trees. I mean, some of those are now three, 4 feet underwater or so.


CLARKE: I mean, it's sort of breathtaking in a way that you can look at it and see the direct impacts of sea level rise right here on the coast.

MARTIN: And the salination - right? - has drawn all the color out of them.

CLARKE: Yes. As the tree dies, it's sort of lost all its natural tissue. So this is something that we're seeing up and down the East Coast. So it's not even unique to this area. Ghosts forests have happened for the last thousand of years or so, but we're seeing more ghost forests occur at a faster rate than before.

MARTIN: You see the effects of climate change in the ghost forest. You also see it in the tanks at Ed Atkins' bait shop. Enter the fisherman.

ED ATKINS: What usually be in here is shrimp - live shrimp.

MARTIN: Oh. What are those guys?

ATKINS: That's shrimp.

MARTIN: These two big tanks, which can usually hold about 40 pounds of live shrimp, are almost empty. There's just a handful of them floating around in the water.

ATKINS: These are the smaller ones that they fish with.

MARTIN: That guy - that guy's a jumper.

Ed's dad opened this little blue shop off the highway in 1974. There's a rusted-out refrigerator on the front porch and a bunch of empty tanks stacked up in a corner inside. Selling live bait is not a thing you do to get rich. But Ed, who turned 70 just a few days ago, promised his dad before he died that he'd keep it open as long as he could. Customers keep his phone ringing looking for shrimp and oysters. Ed just doesn't have anything to sell them.

ATKINS: The demand is still up for the bait and everything. But the product ain't like it should be. It ain't enough. Demand is getting greater, but sometimes we just don't have enough. Like today, I don't have enough bait.

MARTIN: And so you get phone calls from people...

ATKINS: Yeah. I...

MARTIN: And what do you say?

ATKINS: Sorry, I'm out of bait today. Check with me tomorrow.

MARTIN: The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources says there are many factors that leave Ed Atkins with less bait to catch, including climate change. The agency is working on gathering more precise data to understand the severity of that impact. What scientists do know is that the ocean is getting warmer, and sea levels are rising - thus the ghost forest - and that warmer water is changing the migration patterns of fish and other marine life, which in turn eats away at Ed Atkins' livelihood. It also erodes an important link between the sea and the land - the salt marshes. We're going to explain why. But first, let's walk through a salt marsh. Come on. It's NPR, and I know you want to.


CLARKE: The grass we're walking through is actually a smooth cordgrass, which we call spartina. So many different organisms live in this grassy wetland.

MARTIN: Marine conservationist Lora Clarke is again my guide.

CLARKE: Right now we're at low tide. But at high tide, this area will look vastly different. It'll be not completely flooded, but you'll only to see the tips of the salt marsh. So a lot of the fish species will come in. In some of the deeper creeks, you'll get dolphins, some sea turtles at a certain time of the year.

MARTIN: Come in here, dolphins?

CLARKE: Well, some of the deeper creeks - so if we walked to the end of this trail, when that's at high tide, you have a chance to see dolphins.


CLARKE: But about 75% of our commercial and recreational fish species in South Carolina spend some portion of their life cycle in the salt marsh.

MARTIN: So the salt marshes are kind of like these amazing sponges, right? They take in marine life to nurture it, and they push away floodwaters to protect the inland areas and the people who live there. But the warming ocean is now pushing harder.

CLARKE: Sea level rises. The marsh will sort of naturally migrate upland and inland if there's room available. If there's not room available, it will flood, and we'll lose it. But we have to start planning now to make sure that room is available and to conserve those adjacent areas.

MARTIN: So you haven't seen it yet. This is, like, projecting to the future. Sea level rise has not compromised the marshes yet. Is that what I hear you saying? You're just planning for the time when they will.

CLARKE: So we definitely are seeing the impacts of sea level rise. I think we're going to see it on a much larger scale in the future. National Climate Assessment predicts areas such as Charleston will have about a 4-foot increase in sea level rise. That's the moderate projection. The higher projection's closer to 7 feet. So that's going to be a big difference for our coastlines.

MARTIN: ...And a big difference in the lives of people who make their living on the water. It is so frustrating for Ed Atkins when the fishing is bad because he tells me with a mischievous glint in his eye that he's really good at it.

What do you see out there in the water that other fishermen wouldn't see?

ATKINS: I can't tell you that 'cause if I tell you that, I'm going to have to kill you.

MARTIN: Come on.

ATKINS: (Laughter) I can't tell you that 'cause, see, if I tell you that, then they're going to be looking for it.


ATKINS: And I keep telling people - they don't believe me - but I could go, and I could smell all the way the bait out (ph).

MARTIN: You can smell it?


MARTIN: Your boating. You're on the water. And all of a sudden, you get a...

ATKINS: That smell.

MARTIN: You get a track.

ATKINS: That's right.

MARTIN: So this sort of may have been your your destiny to do this work.

ATKINS: Yeah, I guess so.

MARTIN: How long has your family been in the area?

ATKINS: Forever.


ATKINS: I guess since the 1800s.

MARTIN: May I ask if your family is Gullah/Geechee?

ATKINS: Yes, most of them.

MARTIN: The Gullah/Geechee are descendants of enslaved Africans who found a way to live independently along the coastline from North Carolina to Florida, which brings us to the next chapter. In this story, we visited a ghost tree, we laughed with the fisherman and now an audience with the queen.

MARQUETTA GOODWINE: This here the Queen Quet, head 'pon the body of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Plenty of people no know where we da be, but we are from Jacksonville, Nors Cakalacki to Jacksonville, Fla., in the Atlantic Ocean, dealing with all the thing what on rise 'pon we (ph).

MARTIN: This is Marquetta Goodwine, but she's better known as Queen Quet, the elected leader of the Gullah people. You heard her there speaking in the Gullah language. We meet her outside the public library on St. Helena Island. She's wearing a purple wraparound skirt. Her hair is secured up with a headband made of shells. Another reporter has unexpectedly been invited to join us, and the queen brings her own cameraman.

GOODWINE: This is my assistant. We document everybody documenting me.

MARTIN: Queen Quet has a tight grip on her media presence. She says journalists often tell false stories about a dying Gullah culture. A day on the island with its vibrant cultural center and tours to Gullah historical sites suggests otherwise. But the Gullah do live on this fragile coast. They are farmers who live off the land, and they don't have a lot of money to rebuild after the big storms that come again and again. So as the coastline pushes in, the Gullah people may be pushed out.

GOODWINE: You can't put a price tag on my ability to sit on my porch, hear the birds chirp, hear the cicadas, look up at the sky, see the moon and know my ancestors did the same thing in the 15 and 1600s on the same spot that I'm sitting on. There's no price that you can pay for that.

MARTIN: Queen Quet is working with the U.N. and federal and state officials to make sure that efforts to protect up to a million acres of salt marsh take her people into account. She shows us a series of poster boards illustrating what a sustainable coastline could look like.

GOODWINE: We always have farmland as part of a family compound. We have fruit trees. But more than that, we have family legacy and history. We want to keep that. And we want to keep it in a natural environment that's going to be sustained for hundreds more years to come.

MARTIN: But lots of other people also want to enjoy that natural environment, people with big vacation homes that line the coast. Not far from where we met Queen Quet is Fripp Island, where multistory homes with wraparound balconies line up side by side on the beach. To get there, you have to cross a bridge and pass through a private security gate. Lora Clark, the marine biologist with Pew, tells us that any coastal development here must consider these questions.

CLARKE: You want to think about how closely you're building to the marsh. Are you leaving enough of a buffer? Are you leaving room in the future for marsh to be able to migrate as that sea level rises and move inland? Or are you filling marsh in to build new development?

GOODWINE: So our thing is we let the coastline be natural like it is, how God made it.

MARTIN: Queen Quet says it's possible to strike a balance between development and conservation.

GOODWINE: If we make natural buffers, restore the areas where overbuilding and stuff started to creep in with folks who are not Gullah/Geechee living along the water, we could do it through green infrastructure. These terminologies are not things in the Gullah language, but they are now becoming more and more a part of the toolkit of resiliency.

MARTIN: And with that, we take our leave of the queen, and we go see the fisherman one more time.

ATKINS: I'm going to a place called Lucy Creek. I got to go about - maybe six, seven miles.

MARTIN: This time we meet Ed Atkins at a boat launch a few miles away from his shop. There are hardly any oysters to be found, but he's hoping for some shrimp to pull up in the fishing box he made especially to fit his 17-foot Sundance skiff boat.

You got any good luck charm in there?

ATKINS: Good luck charm is me.

MARTIN: Is you?


ATKINS: I'm the lucky charm.

MARTIN: The fisherman takes his baseball cap off and wipes the sweat from his brow. The air is warm, the water especially so. He pulls away from the dock and turns his boat west into the sun.

Good fishing to you.

ATKINS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "ANCHOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.