Rivers and climate change on the East Coast

This week’s issue of Science has a good research study on rivers in the mid-Atlantic states. It’s the geomorphic equivalent of hormone replacement therapy studies that showed HRT was bad for most women: everything you thought is wrong.

The Science study shows that the meandering twists and turns that characterize eastern rivers and streams result from man’s influence.

The news would make a good lead-in for a feature on climate change and rivers. Rivers are important economically (commerce, fishing, tourism) and socially (imagine a river abandoning a town) for the eastern states: how will climate change affect yours?

Typically, scientists who study the Earth look at what happened in the past to predict the future. But the nature of rivers has changed so much, it will take a new paradigm to figure out what the future holds for coastal and river communities.

Brent McKee, chair of UNC’s marine sciences department, studies how rivers respond to rising sea level (one of his sites is the Roanoke River). The huge influence of human activity on rivers makes it hard for McKee to judge whether the Roanoke and other rivers will lose their deltas, flood the coast, jump and take over other, smaller streams, etc., as sea level rises. To answer these questions, McKee and others are using field work, satellite imagery and other techniques like mapping the surface with airborne lasers.

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