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Ghost forests are areas of growing concern — and research. NC programs launch fund to learn more.

A ghost forest. Bright blue waters are in the background, with dead trees in the foreground. The trees have no leaves or branches.
Baxter Miller
/
Submitted Image, North Carolina Space Grant
A ghost forest stands out against the water, featuring dead trees with no leaves or branches.

North Carolina graduate students can now apply for a new $10,000 fund to research ghost forests.

Ghost forests are marshy areas with dead trees, rising sea levels and erosion, according to John Fear, the deputy director of the North Carolina Sea Grant.

“Ghost forests are the result of trees being stressed beyond their capability to adjust,” Fear said. "If the shoreline was in one place, and the trees die and the sediments go away, then the shoreline advances and you decrease the amount of land; If you look at it from a whole-state perspective, where the trees are now is not where they're going to be in a few decades."

In addition to being a result of sea-level rise caused by climate change, ghost forests are also emitters of greenhouse gases. In North Carolina, many coastal forests also store peat sediments that release extra carbon once the trees erode away, said Fear.

But researching ghost forests could help land managers develop a timeline and game plan for at-risk areas, he says.

“If this research helps them come up with a better model to calculate, ‘This forest has 20 years left before it's going to become a ghost forest,’ then that's absolutely something managers need to know,” Fear said. “It can help them target where they do restoration versus where to say, ‘OK, we're gonna just have to accept this is going to transition, and we're going to put our effort where it's okay still.’”

Knowing what areas to focus on would allow managers to better allocate funding and explore restoration tactics, like planting different plant species potentially more tolerant of the marshy environment.

To do that research, North Carolina Space Grant spokesperson Sascha Medina said a $10,000 award recipient will be required to use technology from organizations like NASA, such as unmanned aerial vehicles for remote sensing.

And even if little new research develops from the new fund, Fear said having supported a student would be reward enough.

“We have still helped a student learn how to do research, learn the scientific process and taught them a bunch of important things that will help them down the road,” he said. “We're training that next generation of scientists and managers, and that's in and of itself very important.”

The North Carolina Sea Grant and NC Space Grant are working with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to award the funding to one student. The application deadline is August 11.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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