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Coastal retreat in face of rising sea levels found to be influenced by wildfires

NORFOLK, Va. -- The retreat of coastlines due to rising sea levels may be accelerated by wildfires, a Duke University researcher has discovered. In the absence of such fires, forests can slow the encroachment, he found. At such fire scenes, though, finger-like patches of marshlands can extend into former forest by as much as several hundred yards. The result is a "punctuated" near-shoreline landscape, the scientist said. Such punctuated advance of the sea is in sharp contrast to the widespread belief that coastal change would be gradual due to sea-level rise.

The researcher's findings about the impact of wildfires raise questions about whether fire suppression or controlled periodic burning are the best strategies in areas being gradually inundated by rising seas resulting from global warming, said Benjamin Poulter. He is a research scientist at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences as well as a visiting lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Poulter will describe his findings during a 5:45 p.m. talk on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005, during an Estuarine Research Federation conference at the Marriott Waterside Hotel and Convention Center in Norfolk, Va. His research was mostly funded by NASA.

In analyses for his doctoral degree, Poulter mapped how plant life is responding to one of the world's highest rates of sea-level rise -- about 30 to 40 centimeters per century -- along the western shoreline of two interconnected North Carolina estuaries, the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds.

As a starting point, Poulter took advantage of new higher-resolution digitized data that he said enable the first sensitive analysis of elevations lower than 1 meter above sea level. Ocean heights are predicted to rise by 1 meter by the year 2100.

Overlaying those maps with aerial photographs made in the years 1932, 1969 and 1998, Poulter could then assess visually how far marshlands had penetrated into forested ar
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Contact: Monte Basgall
monte.basgall@duke.edu
919-681-8057
Duke University
17-Oct-2005


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