via NOAA

USA - “Ghost Forests” Expanding Along Northeast U.S. Coast

Higher groundwater levels from sea-level rise and increased flooding are likely the most important factors

September 19, 2018

Newswise — Why are “ghost forests” filled with dead trees expanding along the mid-Atlantic and southern New England coast?

Higher groundwater levels linked to sea-level rise and increased flooding from storm surges and very high tides are likely the most important factors, according to a Rutgers study on the impacts of climate change that suggests how to enhance land-use planning.

“Strategic land conservation and restoration of coastal areas are critical to provide space for coastal forests and adjacent salt marshes to move inland as the sea level rises,” said co-author Richard G. Lathrop Jr., director of the Center for Remote Sensing & Spatial Analysis and a professor of environmental monitoring in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Coastal forests in the mid-Atlantic and southern New England (from Virginia through Massachusetts) have a mix of hardwoods and evergreen trees. They provide habitat for an array of rare plants and wildlife, store carbon and are valuable timber resources. Coastal forests along with adjacent salt marshes also help buffer inland areas from coastal storms. But sea-level rise is altering coastal forest ecosystems and “ghost forests” filled with dead trees are becoming a growing phenomenon in parts of the Northeast.

Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Northeast Climate Hub and in consultation with the U.S. Geological Survey New Jersey Water Science Center, Rutgers researchers assessed the latest information on how coastal forests in the Northeast are responding to climate change. The likely reasons for the death of coastal forests vary by location. But the most important factors appear to be: rising groundwater levels that saturate soils in low-lying areas, especially during periods of high rainfall, stressing forest vegetation; and increasing saltwater inundation from very high tides and storm surges. Accelerated sea-level rise is expected to worsen these impacts, which can leave areas inhospitable for trees.

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