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CoastLine: Deforestation, wetlands destruction, ghost forests, all forms of land degradation in the Cape Fear region

ghost forest in Brunswick County
ghost forest in Brunswick County

Land degradation is a serious problem in Africa as fertile grasslands get drier and thorny vegetation with deeper roots takes over.  Wildlife and domesticated livestock alike have fewer places to graze – which, of course affects humans. But desertification is not the only form of land degradation.  Deforestation and destroying wetlands are other forms.  And that’s happening right here in the Cape Fear region.

The world is getting drier. Land degradation is expanding worldwide. What that looks like in Africa, for example, differs from the way land degradation presents in southeastern North Carolina – but the phenomenon affects everyone on the planet.

It was 2017 when Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned Security Council members that the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war was underway. More than 20 million people were facing famine and starvation, according to the UN. The main cause of this crisis: drought. That was the same year, 2017, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification made drought mitigation one of its five strategic objectives. Desertification, in a nutshell, is desert encroaching on what has been habitable land.

But desertification is only one form of land degradation. As we’ll learn on this edition of CoastLine, there are others, including, and especially relevant for the Cape Fear region: deforestation, urbanization driving wetlands destruction, and ghost forests. In one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States, developers are taking out large swaths of natural areas and leaving dry dirt. They often install sod to create lawns and perhaps one or two immature trees – which may or may not be native to the area.

This creates a litany of problems – including urban heat islands, loss of biodiversity as habitat disappears, greater potential for flooding, and stormwater runoff, further polluting nearby rivers and ultimately, the ocean.

A retention pond in Brunswick County that had a stand of pine trees until crews cut them down in January 2023 in the name of pond maintenance.
A retention pond in Brunswick County that had a stand of pine trees until crews cut them down in January 2023 in the name of pond maintenance.

It’s no wonder recent studies show trees, especially mature trees, drive up property values. But how do you continue to make room for an expanding population, keep residential and commercial development economically viable – and do a better job of protecting the planet? Especially when all this is happening in tandem with climate change, which exacerbates the effects of land degradation.

Narcisa Pricope is a Geography and Geospatial Sciences Professor in the Earth and Ocean Sciences Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In November of 2022, she was appointed to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Narcisa Pricope in Africa


Native Backyards:  https://nativebackyards.com/

Native Plant Finder:  https://www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/

From the North Carolina Coastal Federation, nature-based solutions to stormwater and flooding:




Geospatial datasets including local and state:  


Current research projects:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (A.49 of NRA NNH21ZDA001N-EEJ, entitled Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES-2021) Equity and Environmental Justice program:

Green infrastructure solutions to support flood mitigation and adaptation in coastal low-lying disadvantaged communities”. PI: Narcisa G. Pricope. Co-Is: Joanne Halls and Leah Mayo (UNCW). Amount awarded: $149,750. Period of performance: Sept. 2022 – March 2024.

​National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (MSF MRI) program: “MRI: Acquisition of a novel multi-sensor equipped unmanned aerial system (UAS) observatory for coastal mapping”. PI: Pricope, N.G. Co-PIs: Eulie, D., Leonard, L., Bresnahan, P. and Halls, J. Amount awarded: $850,863. Period of performance: August 2022 – August 2026.

North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT): Demonstrating the Capabilities of UAS Topobathymetric LiDAR Mapping in Support of DOT Project Planning, Monitoring and Modeling. PI: Narcisa Pricope. Amount awarded: $326,838. Period of performance: August 2022 – August 2024.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.