Story at a glance
- “Ghost forests” are coastal woodlands overtaken by flooding sea water, characterized by dead trees and limbs.
- Ghost forests are the product of rising sea levels due to climate change.
- The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina lost 11 percent of its tree coverage since 1985.
“Ghost forests” are a phenomenon — easily distinguishable by dead trees, limbs and trunks, partially or fully submerged in ocean water amid rising sea levels — taking over coastal woodlands.
One of these forests, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, once housed endangered species and wetlands. It’s lost 11 percent of its tree coverage since 1985 because of rising sea levels, according to a study from Duke University.
And now, these ghost forests can be viewed from space.
Emily Ury, an ecologist who studies the effects of sea level rise on wetlands and led the study, said, “Like all living organisms, trees die. But what is happening here is not normal. Large patches of trees are dying simultaneously, and saplings aren’t growing to take their place.”
Ury’s team analyzed satellite images from 1985-2019 using computer algorithms to study the breakdown of these coastal woodlands. It found that in that time, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge lost 47,000 acres of trees, roughly the equivalent of 35,000 football fields.
The loss was most visible in 2012, following the flooding from 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which came after five years of drought.
“Within months, entire stands of dying and downed trees were visible from space,” Ury said.
The rising sea level is a product of warming temperatures melting icebergs and glaciers. The flooding saltwater then poisons the plants, depriving them of moisture, and driving out endangered species in the process.
Ury noted efforts to reduce the effects and reach of the sea levels. In recent years, places like North Carolina have instituted “living shorelines made of plants, sand and rock to provide natural buffering from storm surge.”
“If forests are dying anyway, having a salt marsh is a far better outcome than allowing a wetland to be reduced to open water,” Ury wrote. “Proactive management may prolong the lifespan of coastal wetlands, enabling them to continue storing carbon, providing habitat, enhancing water quality and protecting productive farm and forest land in coastal regions.”
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