Now Reading
Ghost forests in North Carolina are being affected by climate change

Ghost forests in North Carolina are being affected by climate change

Scientists are racing to study the rapid decline of marshland and trees along the Outer Banks as sea levels rise and storms intensify.

"Ghost forests" are found throughout the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manns Harbor, N.C. The salt water of the rising sea pollutes the freshwater that trees rely on, poisoning and slowly killing them.
Ghost forests can be found in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manns Harbor (N.C.). The rising sea’s salt water pollutes freshwater, poisoning and slowly causing trees to die. (Carolyn Van Haouten/The Washington Post).

ALLIGATOR RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, N.C. — As the first light of day flickers across the Croatan Sound, Scott Lanier surveys the gray, barren tree trunks that stand in every direction, like massive gravestones marking the once-vibrant landscape.

“The forest is just retreating,” says Lanier, manager of this 160,000-acre federal wildlife refuge near North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Lanier arrived in the U.S. to begin his career. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1980. He stayed for many years before moving to the Southeast. He drove around the countryside in 2006 and pondered a single question.

“What happened to the trees?”

The remarkable transformation he witnessed back then has only increased in recent years. “It has changed dramatically,” he says, “and it has changed very quickly.”

Few examples of climate change are as unmistakable and arresting as the “ghost forests” proliferating along parts of the East Coast — and particularly throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula of North Carolina.

Lanier’s former home on dry ground is now in waist-deep water. For centuries, forests populated with towering pines and red maple, sweet-gum, and bald Cypress have become shrub land. The marsh has replaced extensive areas of shrub habitat. The sea has taken over what was once marsh.

As sea levels rise, droughts intensify and storms become stronger, saltier water finds its way into these woods more readily from surrounding waterbodies as well as deeper within the sprawling network drainage ditches or irrigation canals that were built long ago to support agriculture expansion.

Trees can be damaged by persistently wet conditions. And episodes of saltwater intrusion can push already stressed forests to the breaking point, poisoning the freshwater on which they depend and hastening the death of trees not only at the water’s edge, but in some cases far inland. The result are expanses of dead or dying trees, known as “snags,” that stand as grim monuments to a shifting ecosystem.

“This has happened over and over before in geologic time,” says Marcelo Ardón, an ecologist at North Carolina State University. “But now it is happening faster.”

Ghost forests have been around for decades. Scientists are trying to understand how these forests are changing and what humans can do to slow it down.

They are currently investigating what the changes to the coastal systems could mean for migrating birds and mammals, reptiles, and plants that call them home.

And they worry about what will come of the massive stores of carbon these landscapes hold, huge amounts of which could be released back into the atmosphere as forests die and the land retreats — a shift that could further complicate efforts to slow the warming of the planet.

“I still feel like we are just scratching the surface and trying to figure out how much of an impact this is,” Ardón says, “and how big of an area is being affected.”

‘Something’s not right’

Emily Ury was haunted when she first began to explore the coast stretches of North Carolina. In certain spots, the ashen skeletons were as far as her eyes could see.

“You just know looking at it that something’s not right,” said Ury, who at the time was a doctoral student at Duke University, studying the ecology of wetlands. “The most fundamental questions haven’t been answered,” she added. “Where is this happening? What is the reason for this? To what extent is it happening?”

Ury and other researchers looked to Google Earth to answer this last question. There they saw changes in the Alligator River National wildlife Refuge over the past 35-years.

In a Paper published last year, they found that despite its protected status nearly a third of the refuge — or more than 47,000 acres — had transformed from forest habitat to shrub land or marsh over that period. Nearly 3,000 more acres were “lost to the sea.” And as much as 11 percent of the refuge became ghost forest, dominated by dead trees and fallen trunks.

While the greatest forest losses occurred where the refuge met the Croatan and Pamlico sounds, the researchers noted, tree deaths “also occurred much further inland in low-elevation areas and alongside major canals.”

Specific events clearly played a role. For example, researchers noticed a rise in deaths after Hurricane Irene (2011) flooded forests already suffering from years of drought. The problem remained over the years.

Ury and her colleagues spotted a glimpse of the future for areas beyond this area of North Carolina where sea levels have risen in their findings. About a footover the past century. The eerie phenomenon It has taken placeThe Atlantic seaboard stretches from the swamps in Louisiana to the Chesapeake Bay to the white cedar forests and New Jersey to Canada’s St. Lawrence estuary.

“These unprecedented rates of deforestation and land cover change due to climate change may become the status quo for coastal regions worldwide,” they wrote, “with implications for wetland function, wildlife habitat, and global carbon cycling.”

Ury knows that people may not be aware of the long-term risks posed to their transformation. Even though the sight is hard to miss, Ury is certain that many people don’t understand the dangers. Saltwater intrusion has caused more immediate and visceral damage, such as Contaminating aquifers and tainting farm land once fertileIn the region.

However, there are subtler changes that can be made.

“People just don’t really care about swamp forests. They are not really populated,” said Ury, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “But they are experiencing this massive shift, and it’s a loss of an ecosystem that’s underappreciated but still has a lot of value for water quality and wildlife habitat and storing carbon.”

“And it’s definitely a canary in the coal mine for coastal change.”

On a sun-splashed spring morning, Ardón, the ecologist, stands knee deep in the cold water of the Albemarle Sound.

“It’s happening right here,” he says of climate change. He looks at the stumps of fallen trees that protrude from the water, some 50 feet away from the shoreline. “That was probably land 20 years ago.”

After a short hike inland, Ardón reaches one of many testing sites he and colleagues maintain inside the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve. They monitor the soil’s progress year after year.

This spot is similar to others in that the forest floor is adding mass a meter at a given time, but at much slower rates than the local rate.

“Bad math,” Ardón calls it. “Over time, these forests are going to get swallowed by the sound.”

Scientists warn that the transition from forest wetlands to marsh, eventually to open water, raises alarming questions about the impact on habitats for many species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers, river otters, river otters, and critically endangered redwolves.

It also has serious consequences for climate change.

Researchers discoveredAn estimated 27 million tons carbon are stored in trees and other biomass on the Albemarle–Pamlico Peninsula.

A 2020 Study detailed how ghost forests had crept across roughly 15 percent of the area’s unmanaged public land from 2001 to 2014. The authors estimated that 130,000 tons of carbon escaped into the atmosphere during that period. Those emissions further fuel the planet’s warming and make it harder to avoid future disasters.

A Separate study last year found that the “amount of carbon lost from forest mortality is far greater than that gained by the growing marsh soils.” The time it would take for wetlands to make up for the carbon-related impact of dying trees, the authors wrote, “is at the scale of centuries, which is approximately the same amount of time predicted for marshes to drown from rising sea levels.”

See Also
Yearly mean sea-level values of Dublin Port, with Arklow and Howth Harbour for comparison. Graphic: Hamilton Institute and ICARUS Climate Research Centre

In other words, more evidence that bad math exists.

“If you were to lose this forest and all this carbon above ground, how long would it take for the marsh to recover the carbon that is lost? It’s on the order of 200 to 600 years,” Ardón says.

He said that neither marshes nor humans have the time to stop climate change as he looked out at the forest and the shoreline beyond.

“In that time, this is going to be underwater.”

Try to slow down the inevitable

Researchers from FloridaTo New JerseyFrom and LouisianaTo Maryland are busy trying to learn more about the causes and consequences of ghost forests — from their impact on wildlife and water quality to whether dead trees Emission of greenhouse gasesThrough their strawlike trunks.

Despite the fact that the land will never be the same as it was in the past, federal and state wildlife officials along with groups like the Nature Conservancy are trying to slow down this rapid transition.

This has been the case in North Carolina since it was A variety of effortsYou can also plant oyster reefs to reduce erosion, more saltwater-tolerant trees and plants, and engineer ditch-draining structures that prevent saltwater from reaching the forests and remaining vegetation.

“If we do nothing, the forest could collapse rapidly and go from being forested to being open water,” said Brian Boutin, director of the Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds Program at the Nature Conservancy. “We’re buying time to allow it to transition to something that’s still going to be functional and still provide habitat for a wide variety of species.”

Researchers warn that the future looks bleak for this landscape and other similar ones. Last summer, I wrote in one study: “At the current rate of deforestation, in the absence of widespread protection or restoration efforts, coastal forested wetlands may not persist into the next century.”

Emily Bernhardt is a Duke ecologist, professor and coauthor of the study and others on ghost forest. She says that even though scientists continue to study this problem, they must also help policymakers and farmers to figure out how to make the most of the coming decades.

Scientists have documented the changes that have been made and those that are expected to occur. “The question is, can we go there in an intelligent, intentional way that’s protective of livelihoods and biodiversity? Or are we going to go there in a very catastrophic way?”

These are questions Lanier often asks as he approaches the end of his career.

As the manager of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the vast majority of which lies barely two feet above sea level, he knows the person in his job could face “a very different thing” in only a handful of decades. He stated that the majority of refuge could be underwater in a century if current trends continue.

“It’s sobering to see a landscape you are trying to manage for wildlife die out,” he said.

Lanier and others who care about this environment are not content to be idle. This habitat is vital for wildlife and humans. It also provides water filtration benefits that are crucial to the planet’s ability to store carbon.

“We’re trying to find out what we can do to make sure the place is as resilient as we can,” he said. “To try to slow down the change as long as it’s possible.”

Receive the latest news about climate, energy, and environment every Thursday when you sign up

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.