Sea level rise is killing forests in protected areas on the eastern U.S. coast, according to a recent report. The research, carried out by PhD candidate Emily Ury of Duke University in collaboration with eight other universities, has revealed that large chunks of forests have been destroyed by the effects of rising sea levels along the Atlantic coast and other parts of the world. The damage is so extensive that it can be seen from space.

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The study involved physical observations of forested regions close to the shorelines in North Carolina as well as analysis of satellite images and wetland water samples. Ury has found permanent flooding to be common in the low-lying areas of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

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In analyzing satellite images, Ury said that her team found huge parts of wetlands that had been lost to seawater over the past 35 years.

“The results were shocking,” Ury said. “We found that more than 10% of forested wetland within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was lost over the past 35 years. This is federally protected land, with no other human activity that could be killing off the forest.”

Flooding into these forested areas means that the salty water leads to the death of indigenous trees. When the native trees die, shrubs and other salt-tolerant plants crop up in the same place. Unfortunately, the plants that take over do not have the same ecological value in this location as those that died.

A separate study co-authored by Ury and her colleagues reveals that tree deaths due to sea level rise have been happening more dramatically in recent years. The study indicates that despite protections for a large part of the North Carolina shoreline, the land cover has changed by 32% over a period of 35 years. The change is largely attributed to climate change and sea level rise.

The paper identifies the grave effects of rising sea levels and the loss of forests. Many tree species have already been lost, taking away vital habitats for wildlife. Among the affected species are the endangered red wolf and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Ury is also concerned that the loss of forests contributes further to climate change, as these lost trees were sequestering carbon.

+ The Conversation

Image via Emily Ury