Coastal Forests Face Rising Sea Levels, Increased Salinity

Ghost forests aren’t some spooky legend. They’re patches of dead and dying trees that haunt the coastlines of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia where sea levels are rising and land is sinking.

USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service scientists are working with partners across the coastal plain to understand where these watery graveyards are located and how land managers can sustain the productivity of their remaining coastal forests.

Nancy Gibson, a research scientist, provides an overview of salinity: its causes, impacts, and management options. She discusses natural causes of salinity, like storms and tides, and human causes, like the dense network of ditches and canals installed to drain wetlands for plantation forestry and farming.

“Salinization is expected to increase as sea levels continue to rise. Rising sea levels will inundate lands, increase tide and storm surge levels, and push salt water farther inland through ditches and tidal creeks,” says Gibson.

Ghost forests are at the “leading edge of climate change,” according to Emily Bernhardt, a professor at Duke University. She has studied how gradual salinization due to sea level rise has been exacerbated by episodic saltwater intrusion.

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