by Dylan Reynolds
November 21, 2019
Each year in December, bald eagles at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge begin gathering materials to build their nests in the park’s loblolly pines. These evergreen trees, which can reach heights of over 100 feet and have lifespans of over 200 years, grow mostly along the edges of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers and wetlands. The towering trees are a perfect home for the bald eagle, affording it good visibility and easy access to nearby water and fish.
However, the loblolly’s future is uncertain. As sea levels continue to rise as a result of climate change, the Bay’s wetland marshes and coastal forests are rapidly retreating inland.
As flooding worsens, encroaching saltwater seeps into the soil, killing off the marsh’s vulnerable trees from the roots up. Left in the sea’s wake are bleak, thinning stands of loblolly pine trees peering out from the rising tides. Most of them are dead, their bark bleached white by the sun, reduced to so-called ghost forests.
Nowhere has this process been more extreme than at Blackwater. Between 1938 and 2006, the wildlife refuge in Dorchester County, Md. reported losses of 3,000 acres of forest and agricultural land, while over 5,000 acres of marsh were reduced to open water.
The loblolly pine stands are an important piece of the Bay’s wetland ecosystem, providing unique habitat for some of the watershed’s most beloved creatures. Blackwater estimates that around 60% of the bald eagle nests in the Bay region are located in mature loblolly pines. In Virginia, loblolly pine stands are one of the only remaining habitats for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
The loblolly’s retreat has also made room for a far less desirable plant: phragmites. Phragmites is an invasive species that grows in well-packed clusters in marshes and wetland, towering over their surroundings. As these hardy, reed-like plants shoot out from the ground, they block sunlight and crowd out native plants, making wetland restoration efforts difficult.
Due to the geologic processes affecting the Chesapeake combined with the effects of climate change, a certain amount of sea level rise is inevitable. In a 2018 report, the Maryland Commission on Climate Change predicted that sea levels would rise by 1.4 feet by 2050 and 3.7 feet by the end of the century. Given these predictions, Blackwater estimates that by 2100, 90 percent of Blackwater’s wetlands may be converted to open water.
For now, the loblolly pines live on, serving as a home to Blackwater’s abundant bird population. You can even view the park’s Eagle Cam, which broadcasts images of an eagle nest from a camera located atop a loblolly pine.
But even long after the sea has swallowed up the park’s wetlands and flooded its forests, the loblolly pines will stand tall: a reminder of our forested past and an eerie warning of the future that awaits us in climate change.
Learn more about the ghost forests at Blackwater.