North Carolina Sentinel Site Cooperative

A Sweeping Perspective on the Coastal Environment

North Carolina Sentinel Site Cooperative

The coast of North Carolina encompasses 325 miles of sweeping beaches, barrier islands, two national seashores, a National Estuarine Research Reserve, a National Marine Sanctuary, two shipping ports, and U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. It is full of extensive marshes, vast stretches of seagrass, and sheltered harbors that support a high concentration of fishing, recreation, and tourism. The region is also renowned for a wealth of academic and scientific institutions, research laboratories, and state and federal coastal management and fisheries agencies.

Aerial view of Middle Marsh in the North Carolina Rachel Carson Reserve, part of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve.

NOAA's North Carolina Sentinel Site Cooperative (the Cooperative) promotes a network of partners among the scientific and academic communities, resource managers, and nongovernmental organizations. Its active research and monitoring programs play a key role in understanding the coastal environment, including sea level rise, marsh ecosystems, and living shorelines.

Oysters are used as a shoreline stabilization technique as part of living shoreline demonstration project at the North Carolina Rachel Carson Reserve. Credit: North Carolina Coastal Reserve

Sea Level Rise

NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve track local sea level changes and effects on marsh ecosystems. NOAA tide gauges positioned along the North Carolina coast monitor sea-level rise trends, which show higher rates of rising waters at the northern end of the state and lower rates to the south. The central region, where the Cooperative is located, falls in the middle of that spectrum, with an estimated sea-level rise of 2.83 millimeters—about the thickness of two dimes—per year. According to the NOAA Tides and Currents website, that is higher than the annual global average rate of sea level rise (1.8 millimeters per year).

Marsh Ecosystems and Living Shorelines

NOAA scientist Dr. Carolyn Currin provides expertise on marsh ecosystems and living shorelines to local resource managers and community members through the North Carolina NERRS Coastal Training Program.

According to Dr. Currin, "A 'living shoreline' is the term used to describe an alternative approach to shoreline stabilization—an approach that uses natural vegetation and native habitats instead of hardened materials such as a bulkhead, riprap, or sea wall. The living shoreline approach was developed because that we learned over time that those hardened shorelines have adverse impacts on estuarine ecosystems. We are trying to do something that's better for the ecosystem, better for property owners, more resilient, and more cost-effective in the long run."

Learn more about living shorelines from this National Ocean Service podcast.

Project partners (including NOAA researcher Carolyn Currin and City of Jacksonville, North Carolina staff) install marsh boardwalks and Surface Elevation Tables (SETs) in natural and created marshes on the New River in support of a collaborative research project with the City of Jacksonville, North Carolina. Photo credit: Pat Donovan-Potts

Current Projects

  • The North Carolina King Tides citizen science project is the outreach component of the NOAA Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise funded project led by Principal Investigator Christine Voss of the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences (UNC-IMS). Through outreach efforts with community groups, Dr. Voss asks community members to take pictures of high water level events during King Tides and upload them to the What's your water level? app developed by Dr. Christine Buckel of NOAA. The aim is to advance awareness and potential dangers of coastal flooding.
  • The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores partnered with the Sentinel Site to design interpretive signs to increase public understanding of marsh ecosystems, ecosystem services, and the role of marshes in coastal resiliency. Through funding provided by NOAA's Southeast and Caribbean Regional Team, five signs were installed along the marsh boardwalk adjacent to the aquarium in October 2016. They are accessible to the aquarium's 500,000 annual visitors.
  • A partnership with the City of Jacksonville, North Carolina, resulted in a collaborative research project funded by the North Carolina Sea Grant Community Collaborative Research Grant Program, titled "Quantifying and Communicating the Function of Restored Estuarine Habitats." The project team, led by Dr. Mike Piehler of UNC-IMS, includes the City of Jacksonville Storm Water Services Division, the Cooperative, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejuene, and NOAA. Team members are evaluating the ecosystem services of restored and natural marshes within the urbanized area of Wilson Bay, part of the New River Estuary. Additionally, six Surface Elevation Tables were installed in Wilson Bay, three in the restored marsh and three in the natural marsh, so that the City of Jacksonville can determine whether the restored and natural marshes are able to keep pace with sea level rise.

Monitoring Tools

  • Water Levels: Sea level rise manifests itself differently along the coast, making it important to obtain local water level information. Water level monitoring stations at each sentinel site continually measure the depth of water, providing a long-term dataset for scientists to use.
  • Surface Elevation Tables: Surface elevation tables (SETs) are mechanical devices permanently installed in wetlands that allow scientists to measure small changes in surface elevation precisely and accurately. This tool allows scientists to understand how coastal marshes respond to sea level rise. SETs are commonly used with marker horizons—squares of feldspar clay applied to the surface of the marsh—to track changes in accretion (the accumulation of sediments on the marsh surface over time).
  • Vegetation Sampling: Scientists measure plant traits such as stem height, percent cover, stem density, and biomass within sampling plots to understand how wetland vegetation responds to changing sea level.
  • Water Quality: Water quality is a major driver of ecosystem change. At water monitoring stations, researchers and managers monitor parameters such as temperature, total suspended solids, dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, chlorophyll, and nitrogen.
  • Meteorological Data: Real-time weather stations within each sentinel site measure temperature, precipitation, wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, and barometric pressure. This vital information helps scientists and managers understand estuarine circulation, plant productivity, and storm frequency and intensity.