AWENDAW -- Chunks of seashore are vanishing from South Carolina's Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge as rising ocean levels and storms chew up the remote, unspoiled beaches some animals depend on for survival.
It's a trend threatening the future of rare sea turtles and birds that frequent the shores of Cape Romain's barrier islands -- and there's little indication the erosion will stop anytime soon, federal officials say.
During the past 25 years, erosion has claimed about 1,200 acres from four primary barrier islands in the nature preserve north of Charleston, according to statistics provided this month by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Those include Bulls Island, the refuge's signature land formation, which drew national attention last month as U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the island's eroding Boneyard Beach.
But even more erosion is on the way as sea levels are expected to rise up to 5 feet in the Southeast by the end of this century.
Despite the erosion and concerns about wildlife, geologist Rob Young, a beach erosion expert at Western Carolina University, said Cape Romain's islands should not be renourished or have sand-trapping groins added, as has been done at Hunting Island State Park in Beaufort County -- also a highly erosional but undeveloped beach.
Beach erosion on Hunting Island takes away sand at a rate of nearly 15 feet per year, and its effects are most pronounced on its southern end. A road leading to cottages there has been washed out, and many of the houses along the stretch of beach have been abandoned.
Today, Hunting Island's park offers just one beach house for rent, a cabin near the Hunting Island lighthouse at its northern end, well away from the areas most affected by erosion. The park stopped renting out the other nine beach homes it owned in 2010, after erosion undermined the houses and sections of Cabin Road, making the area virtually inaccessible.
While the groins installed in 2007 have slowed the rate of erosion, the park may require more maintenance in the future, said Dawn Dawson-House, director of public relations for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
A short distance away in Colleton County, the town of Edisto Beach has proposed renourishing its beach in 2016, a decade after it last did so. If that project moves forward, it could be "prudent" for parks officials to fill in Hunting Island shortly after, Dawson-House said, with expensive dredging and pumping equipment already close at hand.
"But that isn't in the plan," she said. "We are in monitoring mode right now."
Young maintains that's as far as the state should go with its barrier islands.
"We should leave them exactly as they are," said the geologist, who served recently on a state panel that assessed oceanfront development policies in South Carolina. "These kinds of islands that have no human interference are rare."
Islands in the 66,000-acre Cape Romain refuge provide important nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, federally protected reptiles that deposit their eggs in sand dunes for protection. But many of the dunes are washing away.
When sea turtles lay eggs without plenty of sand, ocean waves can easily overrun the nests and drown the developing turtles. If the beaches continue to erode, there might not be enough sand one day to protect nests.
Lately, sea turtles have bucked the trend and reproduced in record numbers, but some of that success is because refuge workers have moved the nests to more protected areas -- a difficult and time-consuming task. Cape Romain boosters say the erosion trend has sparked a gloomy long-term forecast for turtles.
"The bottom line is really critical nesting habitat is disappearing," said Grace Gasper, director of the Sewee Association, a support group for the national wildlife refuge.
Gasper said 35 percent to 40 percent of nests sea turtles establish on the entire South Carolina coast are built in the Cape Romain refuge.
Raye Nilius, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and Cape Romain project leader, said some birds that nest on Cape Romain's islands also face threats from the encroaching ocean. As islands dwindle in size, birds that lay nests on top of the beach have fewer places for their young to hatch.
Least terns, black skimmers and eastern brown pelicans are some of the birds of particular concern because of nesting habitat loss, Nilius said.
"We used to have huge numbers of eastern pelicans on some of those islands," Nilius said, noting that at one spot, "They're all gone now. Their habitat has been diminished in size."
The ocean also is threatening to wash into a brackish pond area at Bulls Island, which could kill plants that attract ducks and other waterfowl, Nilius said. Bulls Island, a wide island of maritime forests and freshwater ponds, has lost about 425 acres during the past 60 years, according to Fish and Wildlife Service maps.
Young said he's not surprised at the erosion outlined in Fish and Wildlife Service statistics.
While many barrier islands naturally erode or build up depending on currents and storms, sea level rise is probably causing more erosion at Cape Romain than would have occurred otherwise, he said.
Fish and Wildlife Service maps show that fewer sections of Bulls, Cape and Raccoon islands are building up and more sections are washing away.
"Climate change and sea level rise are going on in the background," said Young, who has studied erosion on South Carolina's barrier islands. "The long-term trend of rising water is driving the whole coastal zone landward."
Others, including Interior Secretary Jewell, agreed. During her first visit to South Carolina since taking office last spring, Jewell used the erosion at Bulls Island to highlight concerns about how climate change and sea-level rise are affecting wildlife refuges.
"This is your impact of climate change," Jewell said, as she stepped onto the beach at Bulls Island, where fallen trees litter the beach.
In addition to rising sea levels, Hurricane Hugo devastated the refuge in 1989, heavily eroding beaches and wrecking the natural landscape. But statistics show that some of the refuge's beaches began to recover after the storm -- only to begin eroding again, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service maps.
The issue of climate change and sea level rise are hot political topics.
Skeptics argue that Earth is subject to natural fluctuations that should not cause people to worry -- and not cause the government to regulate businesses more tightly for pollution that contributes to global warming.
Most scientists, however, agree the trend is indisputable and say people's activities have generated pollution that is contributing heavily to the problem. Average temperatures are up two degrees in the Southeast since 1970, a recent scientific study shows. Higher earth temperatures are causing sea levels to rise.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, erosion has been particularly pronounced at Raccoon Key and Cape Island in the past decade.
Cape, a long, skinny island of sand dunes and dune grass, has lost a net of 262 acres since 2006 to erosion, the service says. In places, new inlets have breached the island. That in turn has exposed Lighthouse Island, behind Cape Island, to erosion.
Photographs released by the Fish and Wildlife Service show that one section of Raccoon Key, called Sandy Point, has eroded completely since 1973.
A sign that once warned visitors against bringing pets to the beach now is sticking out of the water, Nilius said.
Young said the erosion at Cape Romain shows how barrier islands react to nature's forces.
That's important because so many of the nation's beaches are developed and replenished each year with sand dredged from offshore, he said. If they were not artificially built up with imported sand, they'd have some of the same problems as Cape Romain's barrier islands, he said.
Gazette and Packet staff writer Rebecca Lurye contributed to this report.