By: Jason Rolfe
Winding grassland rivers, rocky cliffs, sand dunes, wetland prairies and mangrove forests – sounds like a random list of geographic features from across the country, right? Actually, it is just a sample of the types of coastline found along the Southeastern United States. From the mountain streams of Maryland to the winding grassland rivers of Tidewater Virginia, to the barrier islands of North Carolina and the dense mangrove forests of Florida, this area is a maze of different and beautiful landscapes. To further emphasize the point that this region is truly tied to the water, there are over 18,000 miles of tidal shoreline in the form of inlets, lakes, creeks, swamps, rivers and more. And for the sake of clarity, our NOAA Marine Debris Program defines the Southeast as the states of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and the Eastern coast of Florida.
Mentioning “the South” often conjures up images of sun, sand, and saltwater combined with down home country cooking, deep sea fishing, and vacationing tourists. These images, while fun, also bring along with them the less recognized and often negative impacts of everyday living to coastal areas. With over 115 million people living in this region, it is easy to understand that humans have a big impact on the environment. Tourism only adds to the magnitude of the problem, with visitors to Southern shores numbering in the hundreds of millions each year. Marine debris from everyday life (cigarette butts, candy wrappers, water bottles, plastic bags, etc.) , without adding tourism and visitor activities, has an incredible effect on the region’s waterways, coastal inlets, rivers, and streams that lead to the Atlantic Ocean. Similar to other regions in the United States, the Southeast suffers from marine debris challenges such as improper waste disposal and derelict or abandoned fishing gear entangling marine life and impacting coastal habitats. But with nearly 2 million registered boats in the southeast states, abandoned or derelict vessels are also a specific and constant problem.
Most coastal states suffer from these kinds of debris, but what makes the East Coast unique is the severe summer weather that often pulls debris from communities into our oceans. The humid subtropical weather, combined with large bodies of warm water can be a dangerous combination, bringing erratic and destructive forces in the form of severe storms and hurricanes to Southeastern shores. Certain states, such as Florida and North Carolina, due to their shape and the fact that they jut out into the Atlantic Ocean, are more prone to hurricanes making landfall than other states. These severe weather events can be an overwhelming source of marine debris because high winds, storm surges, and heavy rains drag household products, lawn furniture, and even entire homes into the surrounding waters. The recent damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy to Southern states, as well as much of the Eastern Seaboard, serves as a painful reminder of how quickly such communities can be demolished – and the long cleanup and rebuild that must take place after.
NOAA weather satellites and other forecasting tools are available to help coastal communities prepare early to withstand the forces of wind and rain. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is also working with its partners all along the Southeast coast to address the problem of marine debris through cleanups and innovative approaches to prevention and awareness of the issue, whether created by every day activity or by natural events. Stay tuned to this blog for a series on simple things you can do in advance of a storm to secure your stuff and minimize your marine debris impacts.