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The Ghost Forests of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Photo Credit: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

You arrive expecting a lush, green, forest of oak and loblolly pines, but an earie presence follows you through the refuge. Tall structures covered in a white, black, almost ashy hue appear just out of sight. Was there a fire – you ask yourself? Did an invasive moss or fungi overtake the forest? An apocalyptic scene, lacking living trees, surrounds you as you explore Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Sea level rise has caused acres and acres of deciduous hardwood forests on the refuge to die and decay – also known as the Chesapeake Ghost Forests.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, often referred to as the “Everglades of the North” encompasses an extensive amount of plant, animal, and habitat diversity. One-third of the state’s tidal wetlands is within Blackwater, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Like many coastal regions around the world, Blackwater is experiencing the negative effects of sea level rise.

Photo Credit: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

As the brackish water encroaches on forested lands, the trees begin to grow slower, and as the roots eventually die, growth ends all together. Oaks are often the first to die, and while loblolly pines are slightly more tolerant they can’t hold on for long. What is left are large swaths of dead forests, unable to regrow. The Chesapeake Bay is in an especially vulnerable situation. Not only are sea levels rising, but land is subsiding leaving communities, coastlines, and habitats exponentially at risk. The Eastern Shore of Maryland, and all of the Chesapeake Bay has a rich history. Communities and families residing near Blackwater have done so for generations. In recent years lawns are no longer growing grass, sports fields have become marshes, and families are abandoning their homes. The forests, and communities around Blackwater are both experiencing the challenging effects of sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo Credit: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

You may be wondering why this conversion from forested land to ghost forests poses a threat. Trees require fresh water for survival, but as sea levels continue to rise, forests along costs and estuaries become inundated by salt water thus killing tree roots. The pre-existing forest is then converted into a ghost forest or marsh. Marshes act as an important nursery habitat for fish, and can become inhabited by native cordgrass (Spartina), however typically the invasive phragmites outcompetes the native. Overtime open water often encroaches into the marsh, and that conversions results in the loss of the valuable ecosystem services. The loss of forests, tidal marshes, and wetlands to sea level rise at high rates threatens both humans, and the wildlife that rely on these habitats for survival. Blackwater has one of the largest breeding populations of American bald eagles on the East Coast, a species which require large trees to nest in. If the forests of Blackwater continue to convert into ghost forest, this may pose a threat to the bald eagle populations on the refuge.

Depending on the region sea level rise may have varying effects, and occur at different rates. Unfortunately, the Chesapeake Bay watershed experiences the highest rates of sea level rise on the Atlantic coast. The rapid increase of ghost forests in the Chesapeake Bay, New Jersey, North Carolina, and the East Coast as a whole represents just one of the ways in which climate change is leading to a variety of environmental changes in our coastal regions. Unlike most ghost stories, the ghost forests of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a very real one. If we are not careful the healthy forests of today, may become the ghost forests of tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

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Amanda Bland Maryland Project Assistant, Maryland Office

Amanda is Alliance’s Maryland Project Assistant. Prior to joining the Alliance, Amanda participated in the Chesapeake Conservation Corps program and has interned at the Calvert Marine Museum as the Estuarine Biologist intern, and for Bergeson and Campbell, P.C., an environmental law firm located in DC.

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