Aboveground carbon loss associated with the spread of ghost forests as sea levels rise
Coastal forests sequester and store more carbon than their terrestrial counterparts but are at greater risk of conversion due to sea level rise. Saltwater intrusion from sea level rise converts freshwater-dependent coastal forests to more salt-tolerant marshes, leaving ‘ghost forests’ of standing dead trees behind. Although recent research has investigated the drivers and rates of coastal forest decline, the associated changes in carbon storage across large extents have not been quantified. We mapped ghost forest spread across coastal North Carolina, USA, using repeat Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) surveys, multi-temporal satellite imagery, and field measurements of aboveground biomass to quantify changes in aboveground carbon. Between 2001 and 2014, 15% (167 km2) of unmanaged public land in the region changed from coastal forest to transition-ghost forest characterized by salt-tolerant shrubs and herbaceous plants. Salinity and proximity to the estuarine shoreline were significant drivers of these changes. This conversion resulted in a net aboveground carbon decline of 0.13 ± 0.01 TgC. Because saltwater intrusion precedes inundation and influences vegetation condition in advance of mature tree mortality, we suggest that aboveground carbon declines can be used to detect the leading edge of sea level rise. Aboveground carbon declines along the shoreline were offset by inland aboveground carbon gains associated with natural succession and forestry activities like planting (2.46 ± 0.25 TgC net aboveground carbon across study area). Our study highlights the combined effects of saltwater intrusion and land use on aboveground carbon dynamics of temperate coastal forests in North America. By quantifying the effects of multiple interacting disturbances, our measurement and mapping methods should be applicable to other coastal landscapes experiencing saltwater intrusion. As sea level rise increases the landward extent of inundation and saltwater exposure, investigations at these large scales are requisite for effective resource allocation for climate adaptation. In this changing environment, human intervention, whether through land preservation, restoration, or reforestation, may be necessary to prevent aboveground carbon loss.
Smart, LS; Taillie, PJ; Poulter, B; Vukomanovic, J; Singh, KK; Swenson, JJ; Mitasova, H; Smith, JW; Meentemeyer, RK
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