‘Ghost Forests’ May Become More Common as Sea Levels Rise

East Coast woodlands are left parched as brackish water encroaches on landscapes

A photo of a ghost forest landscape. The photo shows dead trees lined up near the edge of water.
The water high in salinity slowly poisons trees, and as they die, all that is left behind are ghostly gray trunks that resemble toothpicks. NC Wetlands via Wikicommons under (CC BY 2.0)

Along the mid-Atlantic and southern New England coast, an eerie sight dots the changing landscape. Rising sea levels turn thriving green vistas of hardwood and evergreen trees into "ghost forests," dried-up terrains filled with gnarled, dead, and dying timber. Under climate change, these could become an even more common sight, according to a new report published by Rutgers University.

Ghost forests are landscapes that form when saltwater begins to flood woodland areas that contain freshwater-dependent trees. The water high in salinity slowly poisons trees, and as they die, all that is left behind are ghostly gray trunks that resemble toothpicks. The trunks can last decades in this dried-up barren state, reports Dharna Noor for Gizmodo.

Researchers at Rutgers University, along with the United States Department of Agriculture, found that coastal woodland forests ranging from Virginia through Massachusetts are dying as a result of heavy rain, saltwater surges, and flooding from rising sea levels, reports Matthew Hart for Nerdist.

The rising salt water not only kills trees but leaves soil unhealthy and forests uninhabitable for new growth, Nerdist reports. This report is alarming as coastal forests are habitats for many rare plants and wildlife, such as the threatened swamp pink plant, Gizmodo reports.

Not only are the ghost forests expanding because of climate change, they could also be making hostile conditions worse through a feedback loop. Forests along the East Coast are riddled with evergreen trees that absorb carbon dioxide almost year-round, making them crucial carbon sinks that can lower carbon dioxide concentrations from the atmosphere, reports Gizmodo. With fewer evergreen trees, less carbon is removed from the air.

“One ecological benefit of healthy coastal forests is the sequestration and storage of carbon both aboveground and in soils. As coastal forests transition to marsh, we lose aboveground carbon. Some of that is released into the atmosphere, and some shifts to other carbon pools,” Lindsey Smart, a ghost forest expert at the North Carolina State University who was not part of the study, tells Gizmodo.

To mitigate ghost forests, coastal forests need protection from development, and proper planning and collaboration with landowners must be established, according to the Rutgers report. Solutions the researchers suggest include creating living shorelines by planting trees to slow erosion, depositing sediments to help marshes move to higher elevation as sea levels rise, and planting forest vegetation that can tolerate changes in soil.

“This study adds to the growing evidence that this is not a localized phenomenon, given other reports up and down the east coast,” Smart tells Gizmodo. “While the rate and extent varies based on local site characteristics, it’s clear that sea-level rise and the synergistic pressures between sea-level rise and land use modification...are changing our coasts, impacting our coastal forests.”

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