Climate change’s obvious repercussions are not lost on anyone but a recent study has found that huge areas of protected woodlands in North Carolina in the US are turning into lifeless “ghost forests.” Characterized by leafless, limbless trunks, stumps and overturned trees in place of once healthy forests, these ‘ghost trees’ are now spread across 11% of the tree cover in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the past 30 years. Such dead forests are reportedly expected as a result of sea-level rise which exposes the land nearby to salty seawater, which cause the moisture to leave the seeds and soil, the scientists say.
However, there is also an alarming pattern observed. Lead study author Emily Ury, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina said the damage was not just near the seaside but more than half of the newly dead forests were a kilometre inland from the nearest coast where the tides do not reach. The team analysed thousands of NASA Landsat satellite images taken between 1985 and 2019 and calculated at least 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares) of trees in the area were transformed into ghost forests.
The researchers point at many factors for the ghost trees, including drainage ditches funneling seawater into the inland forest and also the storm surge that came due to Hurricane Irene in 2011. The storm had caused a 6-foot-tall wall of water had forced its way into almost 2kms of inland area and flooded it all. At that time, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was on its path to recover from a five-year drought. In 2012 alone, more than 11,000 acres (4,400 hectares) of trees ended up being ‘ghosts trees’.
Researchers said the damage was so obvious these were even seen from space. Amid rising sea levels, such storm surges will continue to worsen and thus more and more flooding is imminent.
The scientists are hoping that the findings in North Carolina can be of use in predicting an managing effects of other such storm surges elsewhere.