Sea level rise is having a big impact on coastal birds

Expansive stands of standing dead trees, called “ghost forests,” are becoming more common on the low-lying Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North Carolina. Photo: Paul Taillie

When saltwater inundates coastal forests as sea levels rise, it kills salt-sensitive trees, leaving “ghost forests” of bare snags behind. A new study from North Carolina State University revealed that changes in vegetation as salt water moves further inland posed very different outcomes for different varieties of coastal bird species. Surprisingly, species of high conservation value responded positively to the ghost forests— for instance, the northern bobwhite quail, which has been doing poorly across most of its range in recent years.

However, other species that live in closed-canopy forests not affected by saltwater intrusion, such as the hooded warbler, lost habitat when ghost forests formed.

As Climate Central explained:

  • The mid-Atlantic is sinking faster than nearly anywhere else. The Gulf Stream has been shifting northward, bringing warmer water to the region, accelerating sea level rise. Meanwhile, groundwater pumping and natural geological processes are causing lands to sink.
  • High tides rose here by several inches during a recent decade. That was more than three times faster than the average rate of sea level rise worldwide, simulating conditions expected globally during decades to come.

This means that we are just beginning to understand how this accelerated sea level rise will affect plant and animal species. 

Why This Matters: The researchers explained that overall, ghost forests supported a different group of bird species than the forests they replaced. There’s still so much we don’t know about how climate change will affect our planet and how it might shift entire ecosystems. While these ghost forests may soon welcome an entirely new group of bird species, we can’t yet say how this will affect all other animals in the ecosystem. What we do know is that a shift from verdant woodlands to ghost forests/marshes will mean that this land will be far less able to absorb and store carbon dioxide as forests are one of the best weapons we have to fight climate change.

Go Deeper: Read the UN’s recent post “5 Things You Need to Know About Forests” to put in better perspective why losing forest cover is so detrimental.

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