Seas rise, trees die: Climate change before your eyes

They're called 'ghost forests' - dead trees along vast swaths of coastline invaded by rising seas, something scientists call one of the most visible markers of climate change.

The process has occurred naturally for thousands of years, but it has accelerated in recent decades as polar ice melts and raises sea levels, scientists say, pushing salt water farther inland and killing trees in what used to be thriving freshwater plains.

Efforts are underway worldwide to determine exactly how quickly the creation of ghost forests is increasing. 

A narrow band of brown pine trees that were killed by October 2015 tidal flooding near Yorktown, Va. Rising sea levels are killing trees along vast swaths of the North American coast by inundating them in salt water. The dead trees in what used to be thriving freshwater coastal environments are called 'ghost forests' by researchers.

A narrow band of brown pine trees that were killed by October 2015 tidal flooding near Yorktown, Va. Rising sea levels are killing trees along vast swaths of the North American coast by inundating them in salt water. The dead trees in what used to be thriving freshwater coastal environments are called 'ghost forests' by researchers.

But scientists agree the startling sight of dead trees in once-healthy areas is an easy-to-grasp example of the consequences of climate change.

'I think ghost forests are the most obvious indicator of climate change anywhere on the Eastern coast of the U.S.,' said Matthew Kirwan, a professor at Virginia Institute of Marine Science who is studying ghost forests in his state and Maryland. 

'It was dry, usable land 50 years ago; now it's marshes with dead stumps and dead trees.'

It is happening around the world, but researchers say new ghost forests are particularly apparent in North America, with hundreds of thousands of acres of salt-killed trees stretching from Canada down the East Coast, around Florida and over to Texas.

In this July 16, 2017, photo, the sun rises on a

In this July 16, 2017, photo, the sun rises on a 'ghost forest' near the Savannah River in Port Wentworth, Ga. Rising sea levels are killing trees along vast swaths of the North American coast by inundating them in salt water. The dead trees in what used to be thriving freshwater coastal environments are called 'ghost forests' by researchers. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

The intruding salt water changes coastal ecosystems, creating marshes where forests used to be. 

This has numerous effects on the environment, though many scientists caution against viewing them in terms of 'good' or 'bad.' 

What benefits one species or ecosystem might harm another one, they say.

Ghost forests are the most obvious indicator of climate change anywhere on the Eastern coast of the U.S. 

For instance, migratory birds that rely on coastal forests have less habitat. 

And the death of the trees makes soil microbes release nitrogen, which adds to nitrogen already occurring from other sources, including agricultural runoff, to contribute to algae blooms and reduced oxygen that can sicken or kill fish.

But the conversion of forest into marshland produces 'extremely productive' wetlands that feed and shelter fish and shellfish.

The Atlantic croaker fish, for instance, was rare 15 years ago in southern New Jersey waters but now is abundant, said Ken Able, a Rutgers University professor.

This undated photo provided by Matthew Kirwan shows Phragmites and Spartina marshland expanding into a ghost forest in Robbins, Md. Rising sea levels are killing trees along vast swaths of the North American coast by inundating them in salt water. The dead trees in what used to be thriving freshwater coastal environments are called

This undated photo provided by Matthew Kirwan shows Phragmites and Spartina marshland expanding into a ghost forest in Robbins, Md. Rising sea levels are killing trees along vast swaths of the North American coast by inundating them in salt water. The dead trees in what used to be thriving freshwater coastal environments are called 'ghost forests' by researchers. (Matthew Kirwan via AP)

'There is a lot of change going on,' said Greg Noe, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

'It's dramatic and it's changing faster than it has before in human history.'

Quantifying the rate of

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