Life, Death as Saltwater Rises

Dead white cedar trees are taken over by the encroaching swamp near Jake’s Landing Road.

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This is the second in a series on sea level rise, in Cape May County, and its impacts.  

DENNISVILLE - A drive down waterside Route 47, a trek down a Dennis Township hiking trail, and a trip down Jake’s Landing Road, a skinny road with open-sky views of the surrounding marshes, tell the same story: there is death, and new life, rising with the seawater.

White cedar was once Cape May County’s economic life force. The shingles that white cedar trees produced, and that the county once exported en-masse, were essential building materials for those in New York, and as far as the West Indies.

Eventually, the over-harvesting of these precious trees almost terminated the white cedar population in the county. As the county’s economy shifted elsewhere, the white cedar population crawled back from the verge of destruction.

Now, local white cedars face a new threat, one from which they might not recover: sea-level rise. The Pinelands Preservation Alliance reports that less than one-sixth of the white cedar swamps that once existed, in New Jersey, still stand today. Those trees that still stand are threatened by encroaching saltwater.

Cape May County’s average sea-level height has risen by over a foot since 1970, according to local data collected by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Beyond the previously-reported effects of increased flooding and higher storm damage, plants that rely on freshwater and solid ground suffered existentially, white cedars chief among them.

Jake’s Landing Road and Route 47 provide views of white cedar “ghost forests,” areas where nothing but the sprawl of white cedar husks and tall trunks remain. The New York Times, in “As Sea Levels Rise, So Do Ghost Forests,” reported similar “ghost forests” along the New Jersey coast. They reported that some forests, in nearby Ocean County, were converted almost entirely to open water as sea levels advance.

As white cedar forests die, they take several rare species of plants and animals with them. “Swamp Pink,” a violently pink, bulbous flower that, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is “only found in wetlands along streams and seepage areas in freshwater swamps,” will be lost to Cape May County, as sea levels rise.

Local ecologist and Ph.D. Joseph Smith told the Herald that Hessel’s Hairstreak, a rare glittery-green and brown butterfly found in  the county’s white cedar forests, will also be lost. He stresses that “cedar forests are an ecologically unique habitat that has rare plant and animal species associated with it.”

How will humans feel the effects of dying cedar forests? Ghost forests are a kind of warning sign that shows where marshes are creeping into previously dry, or freshwater-occupied, land, often occupied by towns and villages. Smith said, “In a study of mine, I found that about 7,000 acres of farm and forest along the New Jersey Delaware Bay have converted to marsh since 1930.”

The New York Times, in the same article referenced above, did extensive reporting on the ways nearby Maryland towns and businesses were affected by slowly-encroaching marshes. Maryland residents, as reported by the Times, fear that their towns will not exist in just a few decades; the water is just too high. Similarly, the problem is not that Cape May County is losing wetlands, but that it, and other coastal communities, are losing habitable land and freshwater sources, as wetlands are gained.

Smith said that “a study in the Chesapeake Bay found that since the 1800s, marsh lost at the edge due to erosion has been entirely replaced by marsh gained as it encroaches on uplands.”

Middle Township’s Beaver Swamp once hosted an old sawmill that sat at the end of the rugged Beaver Dam Road. This is one example of a location that is no longer usable, as it once was, as a result of rising water.

What was once a humanless swamp became a loud place of industry. The slow creep of rising water has come to reclaim it and the trees that once made their homes there.  

Yet, these marshlands are valuable in a different way, even if they can't be developed. Smith laid out the economic importance of marshes: “Salt marshes have a dramatic impact on our way of life because they are essential to the life cycle of many of the fish, crab and shellfish species that are part of the local recreational and commercial economy. The more marsh you have, the more fish, crabs, and shellfish it can produce. We might lose one plant community (the cedar forests) to benefit another.”

These marshes are valuable, but they mustn't rise so much that communities and towns lose their land.

Smith and Dr. Lenore Tedesco, executive director, The Wetlands Institute, stress that Cape May County is losing ground. The ground sinks as water rises.

Smith cites groundwater withdrawal as a partial reason for this: "Uncontrolled groundwater withdrawal can accelerate the process of marsh migration into uplands by changing groundwater salinity, and it can also cause the ground to subside, which then can increase the local rate of sea level rise.”

This echoes the sentiment expressed by Tedesco, in a climate change panel last July, where she said, “We also have changes where the land is moving. One of the reasons it's rising here is that the land in New Jersey is sinking.”

Cape May County’s landscape is changing. Forests that host rare life are dying, and marshes that are teeming with life of a different kind are taking their place.

Communities along the coast, including those in Maryland and places north of Cape May County, are losing their land to the increasing spread of saltwater. While the spread of marshland presents economic opportunity, it comes at a cost. NOAA and other organizations will continue to monitor local seawater rise as the decades progress. The future of the land may be at stake.

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