Ghost forests provide proof that sea level rise exists

In a ghost forest in Port Republic, near Atlantic City, there’s death where there once was life. It’s evidence of the impact of a rising sea and other environmental changes. Leah Mishkin reports as part of our ongoing series Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.

Rutgers University Professor Dr. Ken Able shows what happens to Atlantic White Cedar trees when they’re exposed to salt water.

“Our sea level rose, they were killed, and now this is their state,” Able explained.

To get a closer look at this ghost forest, NJTV News walked through the marsh to see these trees — or what’s left of them. Able explained that Atlantic White Cedar trees have to grow in fresh water, but the water that we were walking toward was salt water. He says that’s the clear indication that this water wasn’t there before. But due to sea level rising it’s here now, and he says it’s killing more and more trees — trees that were here for hundreds of years.

“We got two dates from that area. You’re looking at the one from the late 1400s, so before Columbus. Those trees have been there before Columbus,” Able said.

The more you around, the more dead trees there are to see.

“Since Superstorm Sandy we have a lot more ghost forests covering acres and acres in this watershed than we had before,” said Able, “and it’s because of this storm, but it’s because you’re adding a storm on top of sea level rise.”

He says the sea level has been rising for thousands of years. The problem is, since the industrial revolution it’s been accelerating and that’s why we see ghost forests appearing more frequently. Research he’s working on now is helping to trace the timeline to have a better idea of where we go from here.

As an example, he told NJTV News that the area that we were walking in gets, on average, about two to three feet high every day. But by 2050, so over 30 years from now, you might potentially add a foot to that. With a storm, water levels go even higher.

“There are economic implications, especially if you own a home on the Jersey Shore and it gets flooded more frequently,” Able explained, “At some point, like with Sandy, people will build a house higher. It’s going to cost them money but they’ll build higher or maybe they won’t be able to get flood insurance. But the frequency of flooding will continue. Ecologically there’s going to be more marsh, but there is going to be less forest so we don’t know, we don’t know what the impacts are going to be and that’s the disconcerting thing.”

What we do know, he says, is the trees tell the story of sea level rising. As we made our way out of the marsh, just across the street we were able to see what the professor calls a recent ghost forest, meaning the trees are dead but still standing.

Then, a short drive away took us to a living forest. In one morning you’re seeing three different stages: the ancient ghost forest, the recent ghost forest and the living.

When asked about skeptics who say that climate change is fake, Able responded, “There are clearly deniers out there and everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But they’re not entitled to their own facts, and these are real facts.”

Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation.

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