WILMINGTON, N.C. and MILFORD’S NECK — It's a haunting graveyard of a different kind.
What's happening there isn't supernatural, though. Rather, it's driven by humans.
It is a “ghost forest.”
“Most of them, by far, are dead,” said Andrea Hawkes, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “It just looks very eerie. The sun actually bleaches the tree and so it tends to just look a little ghostly.”
Near Wilmington, a coastal area on the front lines of climate change, healthy trees that once reached 70 feet into the sky are now a pale shadow of their former selves.
“These are most likely Bald Cypress trees and they just have a very low tolerance for kind of just anything saline,” Hawkes said.
To check, she is taking core samples from the ground. Nearby dredging may have hastened the decline of the trees there.
The culprit behind many other ghost forests is rising sea levels, which pushes saltwater further inland.
“It's going to potentially happen at a more accelerated rate as kind of the climate keeps warming and the rates of sea level rise increase,” Hawkes said.
Ghost forests are cropping up along parts of America's coastline, particularly along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Trees are giving way to marshes and changing the very nature of the coastline, potentially making some areas more susceptible to erosion and storm surge.
“We're right at the transition between the forest and the marsh,” said Keryn Gedan, an assistant professor of biology at George Washington University.
Nearly 400 miles up the coast from Wilmington, N.C., Gedan and her research team from GW are at a ghost forest in Milford’s Neck, Delaware, where rising sea levels are pushing saltwater intrusion underground.
“We have wells in the ground to look at the salinity of the groundwater, as well as the level of the groundwater,” Gedan said. “We're seeing the trees dying back and the marsh grasses are kind of pushing into the understory.”
So, what to do? Trying to hold back the ocean is a tall challenge.
“We have to address that and as an international community,” Gedan said, “but we do wonder if there's some local management approaches that might help, for instance, managing water locally.”
They hope some of the data gathered will give state planners, and the people who live there, the power of prediction.
“What changes are coming in the coastline and that will help people plan? Do they need to retreat from the coast? Is it a good time, maybe to harvest that timber before the forest is affected by salinity?” Gedan said. “Different management activities like that can be informed if we know what's coming and where.”
Researchers are now asking for help from the public to report any ghost forests they spot along the coastline by entering the location information on this website.