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Underwater Seagrass: NC’s Best-Kept Secret for Protecting Shorelines

There are between 134,000 and 200,000 acres of seagrass beds in coastal North Carolina, according to the state's Department of Environmental Quality. (Adobe Stock)
There are between 134,000 and 200,000 acres of seagrass beds in coastal North Carolina, according to the state's Department of Environmental Quality. (Adobe Stock)
June 14, 2019

HAVELOCK, N.C. – At a summit this week on coastal resilience, some scientists point to underwater seagrasses as an important tool for protecting shorelines from hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

Underwater seagrasses may be difficult to spot, but the North Carolina coast is home to hundreds of thousands of acres of lush water-dwelling vegetation. Retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine scientist Jud Kenworthy says seagrass meadows have strong roots that hold sediment in place and help coastal systems withstand high winds and forceful waves.

"As an alternative, a natural alternative to shoreline protection, seagrasses are sort of the first line of defense before we get to the shore," says Kenworthy.

Last year, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order calling for the state to take steps to prepare for increased flooding, extreme weather and rising sea levels in the face of a changing climate. Kenworthy says conserving seagrasses could be one of the most effective ways to keep North Carolina's shorelines intact.

Tancred Miller, manager of Coastal and Ocean Policy for the North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, says the state has been working on innovative ways to help coastal communities adapt to natural hazards and long-term shifts in shoreline ecosystems.

"We also with climate change have habitat transition,” says Miller. “So, things are going from forest to wetland, from wetland to open water. We have habitat changes, so we need to think about all these things – not just at the individual property level, but also at the community level, the county level and ultimately, the entire coast."

Next year, the state will update its Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, which includes seagrasses as one key habitat to conserve.

People living in coastal areas may not realize that seagrasses anchor a healthy ecosystem. Bill Crowell, the director of the state's Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, describes it as an indicator of healthy water and thriving marine life.

"So the thing that you can do to help keep it there is one, don't disturb it, don't run your boat props through it,” says Crowell. “But the number one thing I think people can do is make sure that the water quality off the land is good – reducing storm water, reducing pollutants coming into the water."

Seagrass meadows are found in nearly every coastal state, but have been disappearing for decades. Studies have found that farm run-off, sewage and other pollutants are harming them.

Crowell points out it can take months or years for seagrasses to recover from damage – and once they are gone, it's difficult to grow them back.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC