Similar to other barrier islands along the southeast coast, Seabrook Island’s natural environment is characterized by several prominent and distinct ecosystems, including the beach and dune system, salt marshes, and maritime forest.
The naturally wooded areas of our island are beneficial in several ways. They provide important habitat for wildlife, and their extensive root systems reduce erosion by stabilizing the island’s sandy soils. As we experience more frequent and extensive king tides, those soils act as a sponge, soaking up water, while natural ground cover slows runoff, which reduces flooding onto roads and adjacent properties. The island’s maritime forest has gradually diminished in size as roads, homes, golf courses, and other amenities have been constructed over the past five decades. Protecting as much of our remaining woodlands as possible will prolong the many benefits they provide to our community.
Because of the importance of the natural environment to the long-term vitality and sustainability of the island, the Seabrook Island Green Space Conservancy has permanently protected forty-two properties totaling about thirty acres. The Conservancy will continue those efforts as long as undeveloped parcels are available. Homeowners can help as well by leaving some of their property in its natural state. Doing so can reduce the fragmenting of habitat into small, isolated patches that are less able to support wildlife than larger, connected natural areas.
We value salt marshes for their beauty and for the critical role they play in the life cycle of many marine organisms. A healthy salt marsh is an irreplaceable nursery for many marine fishes. They also serve as vital buffers between land and sea. Barrier island salt marshes mitigate flooding by absorbing water during storms and extreme tidal events. They also reduce erosion where the marsh transitions to dry land and limit damage to properties by reducing the energy of tidal flooding and storm surge.
An important way to protect salt marshes is to retain the natural vegetation along their edges. This transitional zone, called the marsh-upland ecotone, provides important habitat for a variety of animals that occupy the adjoining ecosystems and filters out pollutants and excess nutrients that could drain into the marsh from roads and landscaped properties.
Sand dunes and especially beaches are the least stable, most dynamic ecosystems of a barrier island. Historically Captain Sam’s Inlet to the north and the North Edisto River Inlet to the south have been the primary physical oceanographic features that continuously twist and reshape the ribbon of sand that forms our shoreline. Development along the island’s oceanfront brought about a need to tame these forces.
Captain Sam’s Inlet migrates downcoast (southwestward) naturally. Starting in 1983 the inlet has been relocated three times to maintain natural accretion along north beach with sand from the waters off Kiawah Island. Once the first homes and club facilities were built near the water’s edge at the southern end of the island in the 1970s and early 80s, Seabrook was committed to a cycle of periodic beach replenishment in that area. At that time sandbags, seawalls, and rock revetments were used to protect property, but those devices often exacerbated erosion by interfering with natural ocean processes. Since then, so-called “soft-engineering solutions” are preferred. These methods, which cause less long-term disruption to sea turtles, birds, and marine organisms, involve moving sand from the intertidal or shoal areas immediately south of Captain Sam’s Inlet to the eroded areas further to the south. Because of the highly dynamic nature of our oceanfront, these or similar methods will have to be repeated indefinitely.
More frequent and extensive king tides as well as rising sea level will complicate efforts to confine a naturally shifting shoreline to a boundary imposed by development. For some time waves have regularly pounded the face of the seawall and rock revetment by the beach club, scouring sand from in front of it. More recently, however, waves have been breaching those barriers and washing out sand from behind them. The 2019 Comprehensive Beach Management Plan acknowledges the additional challenges posed by sea level rise and notes that the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association is taking steps to address these concerns along the entire beachfront.
Safeguarding our natural environment benefits all of us. Seabrook Island’s designation as an Audubon International Sustainable Community attests to the commitment of our residents to responsible management of natural resources and to advancing the overall sustainability of the community. A number of Seabrook organizations continue the important work that helped gain us that recognition. As our increasing population generates more services and amenities, the need to continue to protect the environment will only be greater.
The long-term viability of the island is largely dependent on a balance between human and natural dynamics. Development diminishes the effectiveness of the natural processes that shape the landscape, which then requires greater human intervention to compensate. Build out of Seabrook Island will inevitably deplete more of our wooded areas, further weakening the island’s natural defenses. To gain the most benefit from our partnership with nature, a primary focus of all of our activities should be to sustain robust ecosystems.
When we view our relationship with our barrier island from a holistic perspective, we come to appreciate the challenges we face as well as the opportunities we have to ensure the resilience and sustainability of our idyllic but fragile home.
For more information about Seabrook Island Green Space Conservancy, go to sigsc.net
-Submitted by Dick Wildermann for Seabrook Island Green Space Conservancy