What to know about ghost forests amid sea level rise
As sea-level rise accelerates, coastal forests are dying off.
As people around the world contend this week with the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth, more visual evidence of climate change is emerging with the spread of ghost forests.
The globe is naturally warming and seas naturally rise, but greenhouse gas emissions have helped amplify that change and it’s evident along coastal forests especially in the mid-Atlantic.
Ghost forests develop when sea-level rise causes saltwater to advance on the land, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. As saltwater overtakes the fresh water supply that trees rely on, the increased salinity slowly kills the trees, “leaving a haunted ghost forest of dead and dying timber.”
Each tree in a ghost forest is called a stag. A stag only stands for two to three years, meaning ghost forests aren’t like this for decades, and any visible ghost forest is relatively recent.
Virginia Institute of Marine Science associate professor Matthew Kirwan explained to ABC News his research group has found ghost forests in the mid-Atlantic region of Virginia through New Jersey, and they are developing up to 14 times faster than they did in the 1850s because the sea level is rising much more quickly.
Ghost forests can be found in almost every coastal state, and hundreds of thousands more acres of forest are set to transition to ghost forests by the year 2100.
In New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection (NJ DEP) is working to combat the transition of its own Atlantic White Cedar forests by seeding these trees further inland, aiming to restore 10,000 acres.
“Today, our cedar resource is at a tipping point,” NJ DEP declares on its website. “Rather than let this unique and valuable ecosystem be whittled away to meaninglessness, we can achieve ecosystem restoration through attention and forest management.”
At the time of European settlement, an estimated 500,000 acres of Atlantic White Cedar forests stretched from Maine to northern Florida, and along parts of the Gulf of Mexico, with about 115,000 acres in New Jersey alone. Today, less than 125,000 acres remain nationally, with less than 25,000 acres in New Jersey.
These forests serve as efficient carbon sinks, collecting and storing atmospheric carbon, and are critical for maintaining water quality in the Pinelands as they naturally filter, cool and slow the movement of groundwater and streams. They also provide a unique habitat for many plant and animal species, which officials worry may become endangered or extinct if they can’t adapt to the changing environment.
The nearby Chesapeake Bay has become a hotspot for ghost forest formation due to its relatively flat topography and fast rate of sea-level rise.
100,000 acres of forest and farmland have become wetlands in the Chesapeake region since the late 19th century, Kirwan explained, resulting in extensive ghost forests. Another 300,000 to 500,000 acres of ghost forests are expected to develop in the region by 2100.
Coastal forests protect against erosion, buffer storm surges, provide wildlife habitats and ensure water quality and quantity. The mass death of trees occurring through the formation of ghost forests places those benefits at risk and even damages local economies. As saltwater intrusion intensifies, the supply of coastal wood needed by the timber industry will shrink, harming the rural areas that depend on it.
Last month, the Biden administration released a new $2.6 billion framework to “invest in coastal climate resilience,” through the Inflation Reduction Act.
The funding is being allocated to NOAA for a variety of projects aimed at supporting, “communities and people on the frontlines of climate change,” according to a Department of Commerce press release.
“Under President Biden’s leadership, we are making the most significant direct investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. “As part of our more than $2.6 billion investment in regional coastal resiliency and conservation projects, we will be dedicating $390 million directly to Tribal priorities for habitat restoration and bolstering fish populations, and supplying crucial funding to ensure our coastal communities are better prepared for the effects of climate change.”