Sapelo Island salt marshes as viewed from the Ferry. (Jess Turner)

Perspective: Saving Sapelo Island's Legacy from Sinking

Isolated from the world, I wallow in marsh mud that smells of sulfur.

It was summer 2021 and I just stepped foot onto land inhabited by the largest, most intact Geechee community in the United States. At nearly 12 miles long and less than 4 miles wide, Sapelo Island has a size comparable to that of Manhattan, but its slave-descendant population is only 70 people and shrinking. Lately, the island has struggled to retain its youth who leave in search of higher education and job opportunities. Land theft and cultural erasure are other issues that impact the remaining saltwater Geechees at Sapelo Island and are depicted in the book, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, by Cornelia Walker Bailey.

A wetland on Sapelo Island as viewed from the road. (Jess Turner)

Home to the saltwater Geechee peoples, the University of Georgia Marine Institute, and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Sapelo Island brings researchers from around the country, including myself, to its shores. My initial goal was to test a low-cost sensor that could potentially predict the flow of carbon through an entire ecosystem. But what I came to realize through my work is that carbon is leaving the surface of the marsh on a much grander scale than what I had initially expected. Although it is no surprise to researchers of coastal environments, wetlands and deltas along the coasts move sediment and carbon from upland ecosystems out to sea. This is the opposite of what happens in inland wetlands like riverine fens, where only minuscule amounts of carbon are lost through flowing surface waters.

Substantial carbon loss from wetland surface waters is usually a symptom of sediment erosion and can be caused by rising seas or poor management. It is typically a sign of disturbance.

Evidence shows wetlands with restored natural water regimes can start to accumulate sediment more quickly, or increase carbon stored in soils, roots, and plants. Restoration can ultimately slow the speed of carbon loss through aquatic pathways. Rebuilding sediment to its original height can also jump-start soil carbon storage. These facts led me to wonder why carbon loss is happening on such a large scale at Sapelo Island, and what is being done about it?

The Reynolds Mansion was designed and built from tabby, a mixture of lime, shells, and water, by Thomas Spalding, an architect, statesman, and plantation owner who purchased the south end of Sapelo Island in 1802. Now, it is one of two Georgia Department of Natural Resources sites providing overnight lodging on the island. (Jess Turner)

To answer that question, I looked into the island’s history. Starting in 1948, the marsh at Sapelo Island was drained and diked for dairy foraging. Not long after, the marsh was rendered useless for both animals and humans due to the toxic buildup of sulfate in soils, a natural nutrient that is essential for plant growth but only in much smaller quantities. Clearly, the natural ebb and flow of water on the marsh surface is crucial to the functioning of the ecosystem.

Substantial carbon loss from wetland surface waters is usually a symptom of sediment erosion and can be caused by rising seas or poor management. It is typically a sign of disturbance.

Before that, there was plantation slavery. A network of slave-dug ditches and canals that were built to drain the interior of the island for agriculture can still be seen today. Plantation slavery in the United States has had a long-lasting impact on both people and land. In Montgomery County, Maryland, plantation slavery contributed to topsoil depletion so severely that crops eventually wouldn’t grow at all.

Dwarf palmettoes and live oaks, covered in Spanish moss, are two easily recognizable plants on Sapelo Island. (Jess Turner)

An article in the online literary magazine, Edge Effects, produced by graduate students at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), a research center within the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, examined the ways that plantation slavery still influences people and land today. It explains how the relentless attempt to create profits from slave labor and monoculture contributed to soil infertility in Montgomery County and many other tobacco-growing regions of the US. The end of tobacco growing in the region was less a choice determined by human opposition, than a rebellion by the earth itself.

As plantation owners … tried to extract the most profit from the land and the most labor from the people they owned, the soil often became so depleted of nutrients that it would no longer produce. It “rebelled.” “How the Soil Remembers Plantation Slavery

Over time the Geechee peoples were forcefully relocated by an island owner to the area known as Hog Hammock, depicted on the map. It shows that the area where the Geechee peoples live today is one of the lowest points on the island and will be one of the first inundated by sea level rise. Some of the other historical communities where the Geechee peoples had once lived are situated on uplands now owned by the state and managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Over one million dollars has been allocated to dune enhancement and living shoreline implementation through the Georgia Coastal Management Program to build resilience against sea level rise and other threats. The five-year program that ends in 2025 primarily focuses on Tybee Island, a popular vacation spot for beachgoers, though St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, and Sea Island are also mentioned. Any specific plans for Sapelo Island are absent from the document.

In addition, there is a known underrepresentation of African Americans and other minorities at meetings related to climate change and sea level rise held along the coast. This causes funding and research attention to concentrate on other issues. Yet, plantation owners in this region explicitly sought West African people for their expertise in farming in tidal environments.

Scientists must realize that those most vulnerable to climate change are the same as those who experience racialized histories and power inequalities.

Sapelo's Geechee people have generational knowledge of their environment that can help scientists formulate better plans for race-aware climate adaptation. Their incredible knowledge should be valid and valued in scientific circles, and scientists must realize that those most vulnerable to climate change are the same as those who experience racialized histories and power inequalities.

As a barrier island, Sapelo Island meets the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the shoreline pictured will be underwater by 2100 under a business-as-usual climate pathway. (Jess Turner)

Scientific researchers may find it easy to isolate themselves and focus only on the research, never branching out to learn about island residents and history. My time on the island was largely spent knee-deep in odorous muck, setting up a dissolved CO2 sensor in the spartina marsh. But it is necessary to put research into context to understand how past events are shaping the island’s future – land, life, and people.

I have come to miss the smell of that mud and that saltwater breeze, but I realize that my island adventure is part of a story I will continue to tell no matter where I am in the world.


This story is published in partnership with the Athens Science Observer, a graduate-student-run organization that aims to foster a community of science communicators at the University of Georgia.

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Jess Turner

From Syracuse, N.Y., Jess graduated from the University at Buffalo with a B.S. in Environmental Engineering, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Freshwater and Marine Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, obtaining an M.S. in Environment and Resources along the way. Her work involves data processing, visualization, and analysis of wetland gas fluxes measured with the eddy covariance technique using MATLAB, at sites in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Florida. She maintains a blog, definearth, that educates the public about important environmental issues that are applicable to their lives in a clear and concise way. Jess has a harlequin ghost boa constrictor named Genesis.