8 Ghost Forests Caused by Rising Sea Levels in the U.S.

Ghost forest rising from grass with mountains in background
Along the Seward Highway near Girdwood, Alaska, you can see a ghost forest that was swamped with saltwater during the 1964 earthquake.

Peter Rintels / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Along the coast and near estuaries throughout the U.S., a frightening number of once-vibrant woodlands are dying from saltwater poisoning as marshes continue to move inland. Sea levels have risen eight to nine inches since 1880, and they're expected to rise another 12 inches by 2100, meaning we should expect to see even more land submerged and, therefore, more ghost forests forming.

What Are Ghost Forests?

Ghost forests are the remains of forests after they've been destroyed, most often by rising sea levels and tectonic activity.

A haunting indicator of climate change, these ghost forests tend to be more widespread along the Atlantic Coast than ever before, but these vast clusters of leafless trees can be found all over the country—from the northeast to the northwest, from Texas to Alaska.

Here are eight examples of ghost forests in the U.S.

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Neskowin Beach (Oregon)

Ocean on the Oregon coast dotted with barren stumps
LMaru / Getty Images

During low tide at Neskowin Beach on Oregon's Tillamook Coast—home to the famous Proposal Rock formation—the ghost of a former red cedar and sitka spruce forest can be clearly seen. Hundreds of years ago, trees filled the area, but they were destroyed by a massive, 9.0-magnitude earthquake around 1700. The stumpy remnants of the ancient trees were buried under sand for centuries, until strong storms in 1997 and 1998 eroded the beach and unearthed about 100 of them. They now speckle the shallows, making for a mysterious and eerie sight in northern Oregon.

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Copalis River (Washington)

Ghost cedars along the Copalis River on a gloomy day
Dee / Getty Images

The 9.0-magnitude Cascadia earthquake that brought down the forest at Neskowin Beach also created a ghost forest in Washington's Olympic Peninsula, just to the north. When it hit in the Pacific Ocean, it triggered floods all over the Pacific Northwest. The land along the Copalis River where a grove of red cedar and spruce trees stood dropped about six feet as a result. The forest died after being inundated with saltwater, but some of the barren skeletons of trees still stand today.

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Girdwood (Alaska)

Girdwood ghost forest against a mountain backdrop in Alaska

cweimer4 / Getty Images

The 9.2-magnitude Great Alaskan earthquake, or Good Friday earthquake, shook south-central Alaska for a staggering four minutes, 30 seconds. It was the most powerful earthquake in North American history, and it caused the ground near Girdwood to sink five to nine feet, so that the entire town of Portage ended up below sea level. A few ghost forests formed, including one particularly visible one in the area where the Seward Highway now runs. Apparently, portions of the buildings can still be seen partially submerged underwater.

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Inks Lake State Park (Texas)

Barren trees rising from Inks Lake

Wing-Chi Poon / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

In the mid-1930s, the Inks Dam was built on a Texas section of the Colorado River—the same body of water that cut the Grand Canyon and flows through seven states—to create the reservoir Inks Lake. In the process, part of the forest was flooded, and the bare trunks of the flood's victims still can be seen protruding from the lake. While tour operators in the area offer kayak outings on the lake, the dense forest lying just below the water's surface makes it difficult for motor boats to navigate.

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Sea Islands (South Carolina)

Bare trees on eroded beach at Botany Bay
Cindy Robinson / Getty Images

Perhaps the most appropriate name for a ghost forest, Boneyard Beach on Bulls Island, one of South Carolina's 35 barrier islands, is another casualty of rising sea levels. The subsequent erosion of the shoreline here has brought the dead and barren giants to the ground, so they lie horizontally and bleached white by the sun like an elephant graveyard.

Boneyard Beach is just one example of the many ghost forests on South Carolina's barrier islands. The phenomenon is so prevalent here because the sea islands sit just above sea level, leaving them especially vulnerable to flooding.

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Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (North Carolina)

Dying trees caused by saltwater intrusion on surrounding wetlands

ncwetlands.org / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

When you hear the term "ghost forest" in the news today, it's usually in the context of North Carolina, whose coastal woodlands have dwindled over the years due to saltwater poisoning. One chilling example is the Alligator River National Refuge, positioned along the Atlantic Coast on the mainland portions of Dare and Hyde Counties. Between 1985 and 2019, 11% of this area’s tree cover (more than 20,000 acres) has been taken over by ghost forests, a 2021 study found.

Although drainage ditches have long funneled seawater into this area, the problem was exacerbated by Hurricane Irene in 2011. The six-foot-tall wave that hit inland North Carolina during that storm, mixed with a five-year drought, wound up being a botanically lethal combination.

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Chesapeake Bay Watershed (Northeast U.S.)

Ghost trees rise from Hoopers Island, Maryland, marsh
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed—spanning more than 64,000 square miles and stretching across six states: Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, plus Washington, D.C.—is the largest estuary in the U.S. Like many other estuaries across the nation, it is changing because of a combination of rising sea levels and land sinking from the last ice age.

More than 150 square miles of its forest have become marshland since the mid-1800s. In the last 100 years alone, water levels in the Bay have risen about a foot—"a rate nearly twice that of the global historic average," the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says.

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Terrebonne Basin Marsh (Louisiana)

Lone ghost tree and houses on stilts next to water

ctj71081 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

South Louisiana alone contains 40% of the entire country's wetlands, and also about 80% of wetland losses. Local agriculture and development have put a major strain on many of the swamps and bayous of the Deep South state. Other bodies of water—like the marsh that extends from Pointe Coupee Parish to Terrebonne Bay—have been inundated with saltwater to the point where the beautiful bald cypress and oak trees that once thrived alongside them are now barren and dead.