Rapid deforestation of a coastal landscape driven by sea-level rise and extreme events.
Climate change is driving ecological shifts in coastal regions of the world, where low topographic relief makes ecosystems particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, salinization, storm surge, and other effects of global climate change. The consequences of rising water tables and salinity can penetrate well inland, and lead to particularly dramatic changes in freshwater forested wetlands dominated by tree species with low salt tolerance. The resulting loss of coastal forests could have significant implications to the coastal carbon cycle. We quantified the rates of vegetation change including land loss, forest loss, and shrubland expansion in North Carolina's largest coastal wildlife refuge over 35 yr. Despite its protected status, and in the absence of any active forest management, 32% (31,600 hectares) of the refuge area has changed landcover classification during the study period. A total of 1,151 hectares of land was lost to the sea and ~19,300 hectares of coastal forest habitat was converted to shrubland or marsh habitat. As much as 11% of all forested cover in the refuge transitioned to a unique land cover type-"ghost forest"-characterized by standing dead trees and fallen tree trunks. The formation of this ghost forest transition state peaked prominently between 2011 and 2012, following Hurricane Irene and a 5-yr drought, with 4,500 ± 990 hectares of ghost forest forming during that year alone. This is the first attempt to map and quantify coastal ghost forests using remote sensing. Forest losses were greatest in the eastern portion of the refuge closest to the Croatan and Pamlico Sounds, but also occurred much further inland in low-elevation areas and alongside major canals. These unprecedented rates of deforestation and land cover change due to climate change may become the status quo for coastal regions worldwide, with implications for wetland function, wildlife habitat, and global carbon cycling.
Ury, EA; Yang, X; Wright, JP; Bernhardt, ES
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