Secret climate report calls for action in SC

sfretwell@thestate.comFebruary 24, 2013 

This marsh in Georgetown County near Debordieu Beach is among those expected to be vulnerable to coming climate changes detailed in a state report. Saltier water would threaten freshwater species.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — File photo Buy Photo

A team of state scientists has outlined serious concerns about the damage South Carolina will suffer from climate change – threats that include invading eels, dying salt marshes, flooded homes and increased diseases in the state’s wildlife.

But few people have seen the team’s study. The findings are outlined in a report on global warming that has been kept secret by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for more than a year because agency officials say their “priorities have changed.”

DNR board members never put the study out for public review as planned. The State newspaper recently obtained a copy.

Authors of the November 2011 draft said global warming is a reality and the DNR should take a lead role in educating the public about climate change while also increasing scientific research.

The study addresses the politically charged issue of global warming in one of the nation’s most conservative states. One scientist involved in the study said the group that wrote the report realized global warming is more than a scientific issue to some people.

“There were concerns about the political nature of it,” said Barry Beasley, a former DNR staff member who was involved in initial work on the report.

The DNR’s draft study says that, with temperatures in the South projected to rise up to 9 degrees over the next 70 years, the Palmetto State should prepare for increases in wildlife disease, loss of prime duck hunting habitat and the potential invasion of non-native species such as piranha and Asian swamp eels. Many such exotic species have taken hold in Florida, but as temperatures rise, could move into South Carolina, the report said.

Today, South Carolina is hotter than it was 40 years ago, which already appears to have had an effect on some species. Landings of brown shrimp, a major commercial species, have dropped steadily in the past 20 years, the draft report said. Scientists suspect brown shrimp need colder winters for healthy populations, the report said.

Other findings say that global warming in South Carolina could:

• Deplete food sources for young fish. Because of changes in sea water temperatures, plankton needed by developing marine life might not bloom at the time when some sea creatures need to feed on it.

• Heat beach sand enough to reduce the population of male loggerhead sea turtles, which would hurt reproduction. Turtles hatching in hot sand tend to be mostly female.

• Cause more “dead zones” in the ocean. These areas are stretches of the sea where oxygen levels drop sharply, making it hard for marine life to survive. Some dead zones already have occurred off Myrtle Beach.

• Worsen droughts that kill marsh grasses. These grasses provide shelter for young fish, crabs and other marine life.

• Push saltwater farther into coastal rivers, killing off or depleting some species of fish and potentially affecting drinking water supplies. Sea level could rise as much as two feet in the next century.

• Increase flooding on beaches and marshes where people live since global warming is contributing to sea level rise

• Increase diseases that affect shrimp and crabs as well as vegetation

Research referenced in the 102-page report includes studies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Among those serving on the 18-member DNR study group were seven PhDs, a climatologist and at least five other agency biologists.

“Scientists in all divisions of the DNR are concerned over the potential impacts of climate change on natural resources,” the draft report says. “DNR recognizes climate change as a real phenomenon, grounded in numerous scientific studies, and DNR recognizes that thoughtful and careful planning is needed in order to protect the natural resources of the Palmetto State and to benefit its citizens in the future.”

Team members left little doubt in the report that they believe rising global temperatures are linked to man-made pollution. That point is widely accepted in the scientific community. Data show sharp increases since the Industrial Revolution of pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, that cause global warming.

Some conservative politicians, however, have questioned the science and criticized efforts to curb greenhouse gases, fearing it will hurt industries by imposing unnecessary regulations.

Bob Perry, a DNR official and the climate report’s editor, said completing the study isn’t a major point of emphasis now that his agency is under new leadership.

“A lot of things have changed for the agency, and our priorities have changed,” Perry said.

One-time agency director John Frampton, who wanted the report released before he left in March 2012, retired after a clash with then-DNR board chairwoman Caroline Rhodes for reasons that are still not completely clear. Rhodes at the time had been elevated to chairwoman by Gov. Nikki Haley soon after Haley was elected governor.

Perry and current DNR director Alvin Taylor said the department is busy with other environmental matters, such as port expansions in Charleston and Savannah, and a massive gold mine planned for Lancaster County. Board member Larry Yonce said the DNR also is working on a state water plan. Board chairman John Evans said the DNR is more interested in rebuilding its budget, while looking at “more urgent” natural resource matters. DNR officials said Haley has had no contact with them about the climate report.

Taylor said the agency’s failure to release the report and seek public comment is not because the DNR is worried about political fall out, although he and Evans said the report still would need work before it would be released.

Columbia meteorologist Jim Gandy said providing information to the public about global warming can only help increase public awareness of the issue. Gandy, a weatherman with WLTX, has received national attention recently for the Climate Matters segments he has done for the television station.

“The vast majority of people want to learn about what’s going on around them, and the state shouldn’t be reluctant to release its report,” Gandy said. “Until they admit that something’s going on, nothing’s going to be done about it.”

Staff writer Joey Holleman contributed to this story. Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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