Thursday, June 07, 2018

Flooding and rising seas threaten America's oldest farmland

Fitzgerald stands on a spot where he says floods
have killed 15 acres of soybean crops.
(NPR photo by Jennifer Ludden)
Maryland's Eastern Shore has some of the oldest farmland in America, but it's being threatened by rising sea levels and sinking land. How old are we talking? Bob Fitzgerald, 80, says his farm has been in the family since 1666, Jennifer Ludden reports for NPR.

Fitzgerald said a tidal creek near his fields floods more frequently than it used to, sometimes covering big sections of his land even though he's tried protecting it with a dirt berm. The encroaching salt water has killed 15 acres of his soybean crop so far, he told Ludden. His neighbor Kevin Anderson, a fifth-generation farmer, said he has 20 acres of farmland that's not producing any crops now. Anderson wonders whether it's worth fighting to keep his land or whether he should let it go.

Kate Tully, an agroecologist with the University of Maryland, hopes to answer that question by tracking the impact of climate change on farmland in the area. "Tully says that as the Atlantic Ocean heats up, it's expanding. That means higher tides and more flooding. But that may not be all that's happening," Ludden reports. "Tully thinks the sea is pushing underneath the land and into the groundwater. She worries this briny mix is then rising with sea levels, killing from below. It's a threat that stretches all the way down the Eastern Seaboard to the Florida Everglades."

Tully is testing more salt-tolerant crops like barley, wheat and switchgrass, to see if area farmers could grow those instead, but says farmers need to plan for longterm adaptations to climate change now. As the Earth warms, this low-lying coastal farmland will end up under water.

The rising seas are already causing record-breaking high-tide flooding along the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, according a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Increased high-tide flooding--also called "sunny-day" flooding--is particularly alarming because it's not caused by storms. "Breaking of annual flood records is to be expected next year and for decades to come as sea levels rise, and likely at an accelerated rate," said the report, which detailed high-tide flooding in 2017 and forecasts the outlook for 2018, Kate Elizabeth Queram reports for Route Fifty.

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