Mapping North Carolina’s Ghost Forests From 430 Miles Up

by Robin A. Smith, Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. — Emily Ury remembers the first time she saw them. She was heading east from Columbia, North Carolina, on the flat, low-lying stretch of U.S. Highway 64 toward the Outer Banks. Sticking out of the marsh on one side of the road were not one but hundreds dead trees and stumps, the relic of a once-healthy forest that had been overrun by the inland creep of seawater.

“I was like, ‘Whoa.’ No leaves; no branches. The trees were literally just trunks. As far as the eye could see,” said Ury, who recently earned a biology Ph.D. at Duke University working with professors Emily Bernhardt and Justin Wright.

In bottomlands throughout the U.S. East Coast, trees are dying off as rising seas and higher storm surges push saltwater farther inland, poisoning soils far from shore.

While these “ghost forests” are becoming a more common sight in North Carolina’s coastal plain, scientists had only a rough idea of their extent. Now, satellite images are providing new answers.

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