ALONG THE DELAWARE BAY — The face is craggy and gnarled, weathered by the elements with a gaze starring into the darkness.
The galled oak, one of only a few left, stands on the edge of life and death, between upland forest and advancing salt marsh of the Delaware Bay.
Take a walk 1,500 feet into the woods off Jakes Landing Road in Dennis Township, fight off the mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, thorns and heavy brush, and there you you’ll find oak. Behind it lies a ghost forest, acres and acres of dead trees, leafless and gray, an eerie reminder that this was once a thriving forest but has since succumbed to the advance of the salt marsh with each and every abnormal high tide.
The migration of the salt marshes along the Delaware Bay coast in Cape May County is a natural process, said Jack Szczepanski, biologist and project manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Cape May and Supawna Meadows at Kimbles Beach, Middle Township.
“What is occurring is an optimal shift in the migration of the marshes along the bay,” Szczepanski said.
As the marshes migrate up tidal creeks, more and more uplands are being flooded with salt water, and the trees are not designed to handle that kind of salt intrusion, Szczepanski said. But the advancement of the marshes along the bay has escalated in the last 10 to 15 years, infiltrating the forest.
Szczepanski said a multitude of factors contribute to the encroachment and the decline of the trees.
Recent storms such as Irene, Sandy and especially winter storm Jonas have caused extensive flooding and erosion along the Delaware Bay coastline. Development along the buffer zones and Route 47 became barriers for natural tidal flow west of the highway. High tides during these storm events forced salt water to flood into upland wooded areas where it normally would not flow. Over time, these upland trees, washed by the tides, cannot tolerate the saturation of salt and begin to die off.
This is a relatively new area of study from Rutgers University, Szczepanski said, but more data needs to be collected before any conclusive answers can be determined. Recent storms have seemed to escalate the process, he said.
Along Route 47 from Del Haven in Middle Township to the border of Cape May and Cumberland counties at West Creek, the expansion of ghost forests is visible along the tidal marsh areas of Green Creek, Dias Creek, Dennis Creek and East Creek.
Where wooded areas once thrived is now an open expanse of salt marsh with stands of dead trees. With each passing year and more frequent storms and erosion, the marsh along the western edge along Route 47 expands into the interior of Cape May County.
From the air above the Delaware Bay marshes, the magnitude of “ghost forests” comes into perspective, as acres and acres of gray patches stand in contrast to the lush green growth of spring.
Rising sea level is the main factor for the marsh migration, said Lenore Tedesco, executive director of the Wetlands Institute on Stone Harbor Boulevard in Middle Township. “What we have seen is a 6-inch rise in sea level in Cape May County since 1980,” she said.
The salt marsh tries to maintain a position equal to the plane of mean high tide, and with the increased rise of sea level, the natural response of the marsh is to walk to the uplands, Tedesco said.
In the past, marshes would flood only two to three times per calendar year, Tedesco said. But now, seven to 10 flooding days per year on the full and new moon tides is common.
Developments in low-lying areas such as Del Haven and other communities along the Delaware Bay have had increased flooding during these high-tide events.
“It’s like pouring water into a bucket. Eventually the bucket gets full and the water has no place to go,” Tedesco said.
Lower areas of the marshes are being drowned and are naturally marching into the uplands. The Delaware Bay loses about an acre of marshland a day, Tedesco said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a project at Reeds Beach where it is creating more winding waterways of the ditches to slow the outflow of the tide and allow sediments to settle and build the marsh base, Szczepanski said. And on top of that sediment, natural plant life could build a root mat for a stable foundation.
But, Szczepanski said, with rising sea levels and the frequency of costal storms, the salt marshes will continue to migrate into the uplands, expanding the ever-growing ghost forests of Cape May County.