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Families of N.C. trees are dead because of climate change. Now, they're 'ghost forests.'

Families of N.C. trees are dead because of climate change. Now, they're 'ghost forests.'

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As storms and droughts increase and sea levels rise with climate change, forested wetlands up and down the Atlantic coast are transforming from vibrant ecosystems fill with dead or dying trees. The accelerating spread of these “ghost forests” from New Jersey to Florida over past decade has ecologists alarmed and eager to understand how they are formed and what effect they will have regionally and globally.

EAST LAKE — Dead. Pale. Devoid of limbs.

They're families of trees sprawled across America’s East Coast that are being swallowed by swarms of salty ocean water.

Scientists call them “ghost forests” — and they’re becoming more common as human-driven climate change paves the way for more frequent extreme weather events that cause abrupt and usually permanent environmental changes.

They’re also getting bigger. So much so, the barren land can be seen from space.

One particular forest in North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home to endangered animals and unique wetlands, has lost 11% of its tree cover due to rising sea levels since 1985, according to a Duke University study.

What’s more, the ghost forest wreaked the most havoc in just one year out of the 35-year study period. The die-off followed a five-year drought and a hurricane that killed five people in the state and brought a 6-foot wall of seawater ashore.

The devastating year essentially choked the trees to death, sucking their moisture from its seeds and stems, creating a graveyard of “wooden tombstones.”

Researchers refer to the region as “the leading edge of climate change.”

“This flooding is evidence that climate change is altering landscapes along the Atlantic coast,” wrote study co-author Emily Ury. “Like all living organisms, trees die. But what is happening here is not normal. Large patches of trees are dying simultaneously, and saplings aren’t growing to take their place. And it’s not just a local issue.”

The team analyzed images taken from 1985 to 2019 by satellites in space, and then they fed them to a computer algorithm that studied how much of the forest was covered with pines, hardwoods, shrubs, grassy marsh, open water or dead trees.

Over 35 years, the refuge lost nearly 47,000 acres of forest — about the size of 35,000 football fields.

The most “noticeable” die-off was in 2012, the researchers learned, right after the five-year drought and 2011’s Hurricane Irene that flooded the region more than a mile inland.

“Within months, entire stands of dying and downed trees were visible from space,” Ury said.

Aside from extreme weather events, sea levels are rising. From 1900 to 2000, the ocean rose by about a foot along the North Carolina coast, and it’s expected to rise between 2 and 5 more feet by the end of the century.

About the same time, the global sea level has risen about 8 to 9 inches. The creeping water levels are mostly due to melting glaciers and ice sheets — products of warming temperatures.

The North Carolina refuge originally built ditches and canals to drain water out of the protected region, but those systems now bring in rushing seawater, which is about 400 times saltier than fresh water.

The salt poisons soil and plants, draining them of their moisture, making it hard for new seedlings to grow and for trees to reproduce. The freshwater forests — already threatened by land clearing, fires and invasive species — then become salty marshes.

The green massacre also eliminates a plant’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide clean air for humans and wildlife. This, in turn, exacerbates climate change.

Nationally, the phenomenon could eventually lead to reduced crop yields and contaminated sources of water that people rely on to drink, researchers of the Duke study said.

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