Sea-level driven land conversion and the formation of ghost forests


Ghost forests created by the submergence of low-lying land are one of the most striking indicators of climate change along the Atlantic coast of North America. Although dead trees at the margin of estuaries were described as early as 1910, recent research has led to new recognition that the submergence of terrestrial land is geographically widespread, ecologically and economically important, and globally relevant to the survival of coastal wetlands in the face of rapid sea level rise. This emerging understanding has in turn generated widespread interest in the physical and ecological mechanisms influencing the extent and pace of upland to wetland conversion. Choices between defending the coast from sea level rise and facilitating ecosystem transgression will play a fundamental role in determining the fate and function of low-lying coastal land.

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Fig. 1: Geographic distribution of sea-level driven land conversion in North America.

David Johnson (a), Kenneth W. Able (b), USDA Farm Service Agency (c) and Amy Langston, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (d)

Fig. 2: Accelerating forest retreat rates.
Fig. 3: Stages of ghost forest creation.
Fig. 4: Effect of topographic slope and human impacts on marsh size.
Fig. 5: Effect of flood defence strategy and land conversion on wetland size.

Anglian Coastal Monitoring Programme (a). Panel b adapted from ref. 83, Springer Nature Ltd

Fig. 6: Land conversion in the face of human barriers.

Change history

  • 02 August 2019

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation (Coastal SEES #1426981; LTER #1237733; CAREER #1654374), and the USDA Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Program (#2018-68002-27915). SouthWings provided a flight that helped motivate the work. This is contribution no. 3827 of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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Kirwan, M.L., Gedan, K.B. Sea-level driven land conversion and the formation of ghost forests. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 450–457 (2019).

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