Ghost Forests Are 100% Scary, But Not Because of Ghouls

Fear the standing dead.

Imagine walking among the deceased. Their pale forms hang unmoving, ghosts frozen where they took their last breath. Some tower 25 feet above you. Others stand no taller than your knee. They sometimes creak and sway, but mostly they’re silent. Expressionless. A vertical graveyard. 

Luckily, they’re not human. They’re standing trees, graying and decaying, rooted to the same place for sometimes hundreds of years. These are ghost forests, once-verdant woodlands in various stages of death. Don’t worry, they’re not haunted. But they do come with plenty of nightmarish implications.

The Blackwater ghost forest | Chesapeake Bay Program / flickr

What, exactly, is a ghost forest?

Scour the length of the East Coast, and you’ll find ghost forests just about everywhere, swaths of trees salt-choked by rising sea levels and sinking ground, or “subsidence.” Nature’s graveyards are popping up from Texas to North Carolina to Maryland, and they’re perhaps the Earth’s most striking indicator of climate change: With one look, you can see a once-healthy ecosystem die before your very eyes. 

The trees’ death is a slow, invisible one, with saltwater seeping into the roots like cancer spreads in our bones. 

“Even before you start seeing water on the forest floor, it’s happening,” explains Matt Whitbeck, a wildlife specialist at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a waterfowl sanctuary containing one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands. 

He explains the cut-and-dry process: The less salt-tolerant hardwoods go first, then the loblolly pines start to yellow, and then even the pines convert to “snags,” standing dead or dying trees. “I’ve only been here 12 years, and there were areas that were good, healthy forests when I got here,” he adds. “Now they’re ghost forests with marsh vegetation.”

Usually, that’s a ghost forest’s fate—to slowly rot in a watery marsh. As sea levels rise and land falls, the marsh creeps further and further inland, and so too does the ghost forest. But sometimes this all happens too quickly, and the marsh can’t keep up, drowning a once-green forest in open water.

That’s a serious problem.

NC Wetlands / flickr

Vanishing wildlife—and carbon—sanctuaries

Despite their lack of photogenic appeal, marshes are incredibly interesting—and incredibly important—ecosystems. They’re biologically diverse, sustain countless wildlife populations, and can sequester even more carbon than a healthy forest. 

“Here at Blackwater,” explains Whitbeck, “our marsh is at the bottom of its growth range. Because the land is subsiding and the sea level is rising, these marshes are just barely keeping above sea level as it is.” 

It’s worth noting that the Mid-Atlantic is sinking faster than most anywhere else—say your goodbyes to the National Mall while you can—and the Gulf Stream is slowing down, moving less water away from the coast. Add in the arrival of the invasive nutria—a semiaquatic rodent that Whitbeck describes as “riding a till through the marsh”—and Blackwater has lost 5,000 acres since 1933 to open water. That’s 5,000 fewer acres of the “Everglades of the North,” 5,000 fewer acres for sustaining wildlife, and 5,000 fewer acres for sequestering carbon. 

By no means is this Blackwater’s problem alone: Between 2004 and 2009, the US lost more than 360,000 acres of freshwater and saltwater wetlands. That’s well beyond the size of Los Angeles. But it’s important to note that while ghost forests—and “ghost marshes”—are saddening and scary, they also offer a glimmer of hope: A dire scene such as this could be what finally forces us to confront our relationship with the environment. Find yourself in one, and you may find yourself moved to action.

The ghost forest of Girdwood, Alaska | Peter Rintels / flickr

Where to find ghost forests in the US

Ghost forests are found on the West Coast, but their origin stories usually involve tectonic movement. In the Copalis and Neskowin ghost forests of Washington and Oregon, for example, you can see the aftermath of January 26th, 1700, when a 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan sent a large tsunami across the Pacific, eventually drowning the West Coast in saltwater. The trees are still standing more than three centuries later. 

Further north on Alaska’s Seward Highway, the eerie remains of trees whose roots were killed by a saltwater flood during a 1964 earthquake populate the Girdwood Ghost Forest. The stunning forest is best observed from a turnout: the mud flats are veritable death traps when the tide shifts. 

Back on the East Coast, from Louisiana’s Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area to Nags Head Woods Preserve in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, it’s not difficult to find an accessible ghost forest to ponder or even kayak through. But at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, young and old ghost forests pack in a different kind of experience. 

“We have an observation platform off Wildlife Drive, where you can see the gradient through healthy to dying to ghost forest to marsh,” notes Whitbeck. “I love taking people there—you can see the whole story. The whole story of changing landscapes is there.” 

From that vantage point, you can see a lot more than changing landscapes: You can see that our children are already inheriting a vastly different world than the one we received. A haunting realization, indeed. 

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.