The Alligator River Refuge that shelters the National Wildlife of North Carolina has been a widely researched site to study sea-level rise. The Wildlife Refuge is completely submerged underwater. The low-lying peninsula is a commonplace phenomenon owing to the reason that there is permanent flooding. This region is located behind the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The trees that grow in this flooded region are stunted and small. Several of them are already dead.
The North Carolina coastline is evidence of the dying forestland all over the world. When we pass by any roadside ditch during driving near the coastal region, we can see dying or dead trees lined up.
Ecologists who have been studying the response of wetland to sea-level rise are aware that the flooding is proof that landscapes are changing. The main reason for the transformation of natural landscapes is climate change along the Atlantic coast. The adverse effects on the forests are emblematic of the environmental shifts which pose a great threat to local farms, forestry industry, wildlife, and ecosystems.
Trees also die just like all other living organisms. However, the occurrence and process of dying trees are unnatural. The large patches of forests along the Atlantic coasts are dying due to sea-level rise. In addition, there are no new samplings growing that can replace the dying trees that are a great danger.
This is not merely a local problem. The levels of sea level are gradually rising around the coastal woodlands throughout the coastal plain of the Atlantic, stretching from Maine to the end of Florida. Vast stretches of contiguous forest can now be seen dying. These dying forests are called ‘ghost forests’ in scientific terms.
Harmful Saltwater In Sea-Level Rise
Sea-level rise is typically a result of climate change that makes the wetlands even wetter in several parts across the world. In addition, the forests along the coast have become saltier.
Researchers started examining the North Carolina forest wetland in 2016 for the purpose of studying the impact of salt on the soil and plants. Researchers waded through the knee-deep water wearing mesh shirt and rubber shoes to protect themselves from insects.
They also had to carry other equipment and paddle through 100-pound salt to finally reach their research site. Finally, they reached the area of salting that covers almost the area of a tennis court to evaluate the impacts of sea-level rise.
Apparently, the salt did not affect the soil or plants that were being monitored for a prolonged 2 years research duration. The researchers realized that they should not wait to experiment with the process of salt killing the trees gradually. Rather they should seek the answer to the number of trees already dead and the estimated wetland area that was vulnerable. As a result, they had to venture into a deeper wetland area to find the answers.
Adverse Impacts Of Salt
The coast of North Carolina is being inundated by sea-level rise and the saltwater is slowly seeping into the soil of the wetlands. Salts permeate through groundwater when the freshwater gets depleted, for instance, during droughts.
Moreover, saltwater also travels through ditches and canals and penetrates inland through means of high tides and wind. The dead trees that have pale trunks lack any limbs and leaves. These indicate a clear sign of the high level of salt in the soil. According to a report from 2019, these wetlands are known as ‘wooden tombstones’.
More salt-resistant grasses and shrubs replace the dying or dead trees. A new study was conducted by Justin Wright and Emily Bernhardt and they have recently published a paper at Virginia University and Duke University. They demonstrated the shift in the wetland that is dramatic.
The coastal region of the state has greatly suffered a widespread and rapid loss of forestland. This further leads to the loss of wildlife including red-cockaded woodpeckers and red wolves that are endangered. Wetland forests are also very beneficial in storing and sequestering large carbon quantities. Subsequently, forest die-off is highly responsible for aggravating climate change.
Space Visuals Of Ghost Forests
An aerial perspective will provide a better understanding of the rapid changes in the forests. This view comes from the satellites of the Earth Observing System from NASA. Landsat satellites have been operating since 1972 that reveal both human-induced and natural images. Computer analysis can offer a great comparative study of the dead trees patches of the landscape.
Credits NASA / U.S. Geological Survey
However, the result was shocking. Over 10% of forested wetland in the Wildlife Refuge had already been lost over the last 35 years. The landscape has no human activity since it is under federal protection. Rapid sea-level rise is outpacing the forests’ ability to adapt to the saltier and wetter conditions.
Extreme and quick climate change has further pushed the region towards a tipping point which may cause a mass die-off of trees in the region.
Preventive Measures Versus Natural Deterioration?
Coastal woodlands along the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay as well as other parts of the world are also suffering from sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion. Many conservation communities have been rethinking their land management strategies and exploring alternate adaptive approaches.
For example, Nature Conservancy in North Carolina is trying to create a natural buffer against storm surges by making ‘living shorelines’ with the help of rocks, sand, and plants. Introducing marsh, salt-tolerant plants in threatened zones will be a controversial yet radical approach.
The reason to introduce radically different adaptive measures against sea-level rise is to establish salt marsh instead of transforming wetland into open water. Open water is not suitable for ecological benefits against salt marsh. Proactive management might still be able to safeguard coastal wetlands.
Image Featured: Mark Hibbs