With Halloween just over a month away, it's finally time to talk about ghosts of the Chesapeake. Not Charlie Brown costumes or spooky stories to tell in the dark, but ghost forests – eerie stands of dead trees that are a visible sign of rising sea levels and subsidence on the Bay.
Paddling along the various water trails of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, you'll find the bare trunks of once evergreen loblolly pines still standing tall. The eerie white and black trees have a gothic feel about them. It's as if a fire has left these standing as decayed skeletons of what was once a lush forest. In truth, it's the opposite of fire. Adding to the eeriness, the seemingly endless twists, turns and cuts through the marsh make for a feeling of an endless maze, being watched over by these skeletons of what was once a pine forest on the edge.
While the trees may be dead, Blackwater is a place to witness a wetland ecosystem in action. The refuge is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and provides habitat for resident wildlife, including bald eagles, osprey, and otters. Anglers and photographers also flock to Blackwater in search of adventure and their respective trophies.
A saltwater marsh habitat is somewhat unique among tidal wetlands. This is one of the few in the Chesapeake Bay region, which is in part why the ghost trees take form here (or lose form, in a sense). The habitat to the south is disappearing fast, with the land to the north shifting as well. In fact by some estimates, Blackwater has lost over 30 percent of its wetland habitat since the 1930s.
The boundaries of the wetland continue to move (almost mysteriously?). The ghost forests are created when the rising sea levels inundate an area that was once forested. With the saltwater flooding the ground, the trees begin to succumb- starting with the roots- and they eventually become submerged and preserved in the peat. The subsidence of the land and the rising of the seas are a relentless one-two punch, leaving the Blackwater land in an ever sinking state. Not to mention the nutria devastation.
The orange-toothed gluttons had exploded across the refuge, and by 2000 had laid waste to entire regions of Blackwater- eating away the vegetation down to the root. In response, state and federal wildlife began a concerted effort to eradicate the pests, and after more than 20 years of work, they have finally been successful. DNR declared earlier in September that nutria had been completely eradicated from the area.
Much of the marsh grass can recover from the temporary incursion of an invasive species (the jury is still out on the impact of snakeheads, the latest invasive to make their way into Blackwater). But the rising tides still creep higher and higher. Which means more and more of the riparian buffers around the wetlands will eventually succumb.
The ghost forests are a stark reminder of the devastating effects of sea level rise. As the waters continue to rise, more and more of these trees will die, leaving behind these very real ghosts- and adding to the uniqueness of the Blackwater landscape.