A ghost forest forming along the shoreline of Blackwater Bay in Santa Rosa County. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
As the name implies, they are haunting—wide stretches of standing, dead trees with exposed roots. These “ghost forests” are an unsettling scene in unsettling times for the environment. While coastal erosion is a fact of life—incoming waves, hurricanes, longshore drift of beach sand—the rate of its occurrence is startling lately.
Global rises in sea level due to increased atmospheric carbon levels mean more saltwater is moving into flat, coastal habitats that once served as a buffer from the open water. Salt is an exceedingly difficult compound for plants to handle, and only a few species have evolved mechanisms for tolerating it. Low-growing salt marshes and thick mangrove stands have always served as “first line of defense” buffers to take in wave action and absorb saltwater. If shorelines have too much wave action for marshes to form, wide stretches of sandy beach and dunes serve the same function, protecting the inland species of shrubs and trees. Many coastal areas are flat and stay at or just above sea level for thousands of yards, or even miles. This means that even a small increase in sea level can send saltwater deep into previously freshwater systems, drowning the marsh and flooding stands of oak and pine. The salt and sulfate in seawater will kill a tree quickly, although it may remain standing, dead, for months or years. Hurricanes and tropical storms exacerbate that damage, scouring out chunks of shoreline and knocking down already-unstable trees.
This diagram outlines the changes in coastal vegetation and shorelines as sea level rises. With “ghost forests,” the sea level moves into that coastal forest section. Figure credit: W. Gray, IAN Image Library
A slow increase in sea level could be tolerated and adapted to as salt marshes move inland and replace non-salt tolerant species. But this process of ecological succession can be interrupted if erosion and increased water levels occur too quickly. And if there is hard infrastructure inland of the marshes (like roads or buildings), the system experiences “coastal squeeze,” winnowing the marsh to a thin, eventually nonexistent ribbon, with no natural protection for that expensive infrastructure.
Ghost forests are popping up everywhere. Earlier this month, Popular Mechanics magazine reported on a recently published study that used satellite imagery to document how 11% of a previously healthy forest was converted to standing dead trees along the coast of North Carolina. The trees died within a span of just 35 years (1984-2019). During that time frame, this stretch of coastline also experienced an extended drought and Category 3 Hurricane Irene. These impacts sped up the habitat loss, with over 19,000 hectares converted from forest to marsh and 1100 hectares of marsh vegetation gone, becoming open water.
Exposed roots of a ghost forest forming along the Escambia Bay. Photo credit: Deanie Sexton
Due to increased coastal flooding and saltwater standing in forested areas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are concerned that the historic Harriett Tubman Byway in Maryland—part of the famed underground railroad of the Civil War era—will soon be gone. Over 5,000 acres of tidal marsh have converted to open water in the area and large stands of trees have died. Even locally, trees along Escambia and Blackwater Bay are dying due to salt damage and heavy erosion. Hurricane Sally delivered a knockout punch to many remaining trees along the scenic bluffs of the bay.
Sea level has risen over 10” in the past 100 years in the Pensacola Bay area, and even mid-range Army Corps of Engineers estimates expect 0.6 to 1.4 feet of rise in the area by 2045. There are some actions we can take to mitigate future damage. Building a “living shoreline” of vegetation along a piece of waterfront property instead of using a seawall can help, especially if the vegetation growth outpaces sea level rise. You can also visit the City of Pensacola’s Climate Task Force report to learn more about climate action recommended (and being taken) locally, such as increasing the use of renewable energy and dedicating staff to sustainability measures.
A storm impacted sailboat rests along the shoreline of Carl Gray Park near Gulf Coast State College. This vessel was removed after Panama City Law Enforcement Officers submitted the case for judicial processing. Vessels like this one, once legally processed, can be removed with the Hurricane Michael Marine Debris Removal Funds or by utilizing private funding sources. Photo by L. Scott Jackson
By L. Scott Jackson and Brittany Stark | UF/IFAS Extension Bay County and Florida Sea Grant
I received a phone call requesting an interview from a California based news outlet the day before Hurricane Michael made landfall October 10, 2018. The phone call came as I put the final hurricane shutter on my own home. I had spent the day preparing, bagging sand for old friends and new ones, I met at the sand pile in Lynn Haven. The day’s experience began to sink in – everyone is preparing for a major hurricane! The interviewer asked, “What concerns you the most about this storm?” I thought for second, “What concerns me the most, the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t seen a cold front this year. This is as hot as the Gulf can get, which can fuel large hurricanes.” I couldn’t have imagined what would happen in the next 24 hours after I spoke those words, despite how ominous they were.
In many ways, Michael was our version of the “Perfect Storm”. In the subsequent months and now years, Michael’s extensive devastation continues to confound residents and those responding to provide help.
Emergency responders with the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife with Emergency Support Function 10 (ESF-10) worked effectively to address high priority vessels and marine debris problems immediately after Hurricane Michael. According to a media release January 11, 2019, “ESF-10 response teams have completed the following in their efforts to reduce the potential impact to Florida’s marine environment: Assessed 1,370 displaced, wrecked, sunken or beached vessels – 175 vessels mitigated and/or removed from the environment.”
I have been working with a team of professionals from the University of Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and local county Boards of County Commissioners in Bay, Gulf, and Franklin Counties to acquire funds and setup to clean-up what remains of the Hurricane related debris. The targeted area includes the shorelines of St Andrew, St Joe, and Apalachicola Bays. The team received notification of a 3 million dollar grant award from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) in April of 2020. This grant is designed specifically to help communities like ours recover and restore their bays and waterways after hurricanes.
Our project team made extensive use of Aerial Imagery. We estimate about 700 – 800 remaining marine debris targets including 90 vessels in the three-county project area, with the vast majority in Bay County and St Andrew Bay. Our goal is to clean-up and remove over 1,000 tons of marine debris during the project while protecting resources like seagrasses and shoreline vegetation.
The first phase of the vessel removal project was scheduled to begin in 2020. As a result of the pandemic and executive orders from Florida’s Governor, there was a pause to allow vessel owners the opportunity to address violations in this unprecedented situation. This put legal proceedings and investigations on hold from March through September 2020.
As 2021 began we had completed the remaining steps needed to initiate the clean-up and removal activities identified in our grant proposal. FWC completed legal investigations. NOAA finalized the required environmental assessment in consultation with appropriate federal and state agencies. Marine contractors and professionals were qualified and selected. We also employed two dedicated staff to work with impacted property owners that need assistance with shoreline debris and storm impacted vessels in Bay, Gulf, and Franklin Counties.
Our project Manager is Frank Mancinelli, a long-time Callaway resident and Air Force veteran, with professional experience and training in project management. Frank has a communications degree from Florida State University and a Master of Aeronautical Science / Safety degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Our program Assistant is Bree Stark, a Florida native and long-time panhandle resident, who graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Agricultural Education and Communication.
The number of remaining vessels and marine debris targets are astounding for everyone involved. Especially if it’s your property that is impacted. Each vessel has its own set of challenges that need to be addressed legally and logistically prior to removal. There are many obstacles that our project team can help property owners address.
The Hurricane Michael Debris Removal Team Wants to Hear from You!
Need a Hurricane Michael-impacted vessel removed? The Hurricane Michael Marine Debris Removal Project team wants to help!
If you would like to report a Hurricane Michael vessel in need of removal, contact Bree Stark by calling 850-378-2330 or by emailing email@example.com. Even if the vessel isn’t yours or on your property, the team needs your help to verify and expand their database of known sites for clean-up. You can also report Hurricane Michael impacted vessels via our online survey at http://bit.ly/HMVessel
(Portions of this Article Originally Published in the Panama City News Herald)
An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Thomas Obreza, Interim-Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.
A healthy and diverse native forest provides many benefits for environmental and human health. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin
Trees often are low on priority lists – unless you had tree damage as a result of Hurricane Sally. However, you might be surprised to learn that trees played a beneficial, if somewhat behind the scenes, role for good this year and every year. And celebrating the good, while not ignoring potential problems, is important when making decisions involving trees.
Often trees are disparaged, especially after a severe storm. Many trees fell during Sally, causing costly clean up and often significant damage. Some trees were damaged: causing hazardous conditions, opportunities for the tree disease and insect infestation, or simply aesthetically unpleasant disfigurement. Even without storms, trees require care, can interfere with utilities and foundations, and require extra clean up certain times of year. Yet, healthy well-maintained trees might reduce wind speeds and damage for property underneath or on the leeward (downwind) side of trees. Trees also significantly reduce erosion and absorb stormwater.
Bald cypress. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin
Trees often give more than they take. Many studies have been done on the effects of green space on a person’s well-being, including lowering blood pressure, speeding up recovery times, and lessening depression and anxiety. Other social benefits include lowering crime rates, increasing property values, creating beauty and space for recreation and relaxation, and lowering cooling bills. They provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. We haven’t even begun to mention the material benefits such as fruit, nuts, wood, and the 5,000 plus commercial products made from trees (wood, roots, leaves, and saps).
Author and county forester Cathy Hardin demonstrates proper tree planting at a past Arbor Day program. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
So, celebrate trees this year! Winter is a great time to improve existing trees and to plant new ones. Florida Arbor Day is celebrated the on the third Friday in January – January 15, 2021. National Arbor Day is the last Friday in April. In Escambia County, the UF IFAS Extension office is holding several Arbor Day related events, including a drive-through tree giveaway on January 23. Even if you are not able to attend a public event in your area, you still can get out and celebrate trees. Below are some ideas.
• Care for storm damaged trees.
o Contact an arborist for evaluation of potential hazards
o Properly prune out broken limbs to create a smooth surface
o Some trees may not be able to be successfully treated and need removal
o Most trees will recover, but might need time and/or multiple treatments
• Learn about proper pruning techniques to take care of smaller trees yourself
• When hiring a professional is required, hire a reputable company with a certified arborist on staff. Ensure the company has both Personal and Property Damage Liability Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Insurance. Arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture can be found at http://www.isa-arbor.com/findanarborist/arboristsearch.aspx.
• Take care of tree roots. Don’t compact the soil by parking or piling things in the root zone. Use caution
when applying any chemicals (fertilizer, herbicide, pesticides) to the soil or lawn. Read the label to
ensure it will not harm your tree.
Florida yew. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin
• Decide what species of tree is right for you, considering the soil type, size of opening, climate, and eventual size of tree.
• Plant the tree at the right depth, not too deep or too shallow.
• Keep it simple. Soil amendments, fertilizers, and staking are usually unnecessary, especially for small native trees.
• Mulch lightly over the root zone, but not against the trunk.
• Water regularly until the tree is established. (Three gallons per inch of tree diameter weekly – applied slowly at the root ball)
• Take a photo of your favorite tree to post on social media. Tag the Florida Forest Service!
Longleaf pine. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin
• Take a hike in the woods or a nearby park.
• Have a picnic with friends or family by a tree.
• Be grateful for your tree and its benefits.
• Teach a child about trees. There are many activities that can be used. Check out Project Learning Tree Activities for Families – Project Learning Tree (plt.org) or the Arbor Day Foundation www.ArborDay.org for a few ideas.
• Plant a new tree.
For more information on the benefits of trees, visit healthytreeshealthylives.org or www.vibrantcitieslab.com. The Florida Forest Service, a division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, manages more than 1 million acres of state forests and provides forest management assistance on more than 17 million acres of private and community forests. The Florida Forest Service is also responsible for protecting homes, forestland and natural resources from the devastating effects wildfire on more than 26 million acres. Learn more at FDACS.gov/FLForestService.
Cathy Hardin is the Escambia County Forester for the Florida Forest Service and can be reached at Cathy.Hardin@fdacs.gov.
I think we can all agree it has been one crazy hurricane season. We have gone through the entire alphabet, and much of the Greek alphabet, naming storms – a record 30. Here in Pensacola we had Sally, but we had to prepare for many others that were wobbling around out there. It seemed this year the computer models were struggling predicting landfall locations. The “spaghetti” paths of the recent Eta were all over the Gulf. So, what is going on? It probably has to do with a warmer Gulf but there has to be more to it than that. Some have mentioned that it has been a La Nina year, and that the Gulf is more active during such years. Fair enough… what is the La Nina?
It is the opposite of the El Nino – a term more people have heard of. Okay… what is the El Nino?
The red indicates warm water temperatures. Notice the warm temps in the eastern Pacific – not normal.
The El Nino is a warming trend observed in the eastern Pacific Ocean every 2-7 years around Christmas time. El Nino… “the child”. There are records of this event going back over a century. It was first noticed by Peruvian fishermen, who fish some of the most productive waters on the planet. These productive waters are fueled by the cold Humboldt Current and an upwelling bringing nutrient rich cold waters from the seafloor. When the El Nino occurs the Humboldt Current warms and “caps” the upwelling from reaching the surface where the food chain can benefit. The fish move away, and the fishermen notice it. When people began to colonize southern California, and began fishing for tuna and sardines, they noticed the same thing. The El Nino moved north of the equator just as it moves south of it.
To better understand this, we will need to know a little about the ocean currents.
The world rotates on its axis every 24 hours – there, we are off to a good start.
The sun’s rays hit the earth more directly in the equatorial part of the planet, making it warmer there.
The cold polar water is more dense and sinks. The warmer equatorial waters move across the surface of the ocean to fill the void left by the sinking polar water. But it does not move in a straight line to that point. The world is turning remember, and this cause the moving water to bend in a curved pattern. The equatorial water moves west by northwest, warming more as it moves. This is the equatorial current. When it reaches Indonesia it is a balmy 80F+ (or so). This is the land of palm trees and coral reefs – “Bali-Hai”.
The equatorial currents of the Pacific.
The water now moves north towards Japan and Korea before heading towards Alaska. Here it is called the Kuroshio Current and here it slowly begins to lose its warmth. As it slides beneath Alaska heading for Canada it is called the North Pacific Current, and then becomes the California Current as it passes the western United States heading back towards the equator. Here the water is much cooler (60-70F). There are no coral reefs, but you do find palm trees in southern California. This coast is also bathed with an upwelling and supports a rich fishery.
The southern Pacific is the same – but the current names are different. The equatorial current heads west reaching Indonesia and heads south to Australia where they call it the East Australian Current (the EAC of Finding Nemo fame). This is the home of the Great Barrier Reef. The currents circle near Antarctica, become colder, and head north along South America as the Humboldt Current (also known as the Peru Current).
Now imagine this…
Imagine the warm equatorial water near Indonesia begins to slide back towards California and Central America. Imagine this warm water layer then heads north and south to the coasts of California and Peru. This warm water caps the upwelling and the fish leave – near Christmas time – the El Nino. Bad times for the fishing fleet.
Commercial fishing in the California Current.
The atmosphere responds to these ocean temperature shifts. Normally, the cooler waters reaching the equator from California and Peru move westward forming the equatorial current. This cool water helps form east winds that move across westward as well. Known as the Trade Winds, sailors have used them for centuries to reach “good trading locations”. They are steady and dependable… unless it is an El Nino year. During El Nino the warmer ocean slows the strength of these winds. They actually move eastward across Central America and impact the Gulf of Mexico. During El Nino years these eastward moving Pacific winds push hurricanes out of the Gulf into the Atlantic. These are the hurricane seasons when Bermuda is hit frequently.
La Nina is the opposite. The Pacific waters moving into the equatorial area from California and Peru are colder than normal. These colder waters move faster and farther across the equatorial waters of the Pacific increasing the Trade Winds moving west… not east. With these Trade Winds moving in the direction they should, even stronger than normal, hurricanes are “sucked” into the Gulf of Mexico. La Nina seasons are very busy hurricane seasons for us. And you guessed it, it is a La Nina year. La Nina usually follows the El Nino and we can sometimes experience them for two seasons, but 12 months is typical.
The thing is La Nina’s have been occurring for centuries. We have certainly had hurricane seasons that were busier than normal but not to the extent we saw this year. You have to look at climate change in general, and other atmospheric conditions that could influence this. I am sure the meteorologists and climatologists are as interested in what happened (is happening) this year as we are.
Hopefully we will not see another season like this for some time.
If your private well was damaged or flooded due to hurricane or other heavy storm activity, your well water may not be safe to drink. Well water should not be used for drinking, cooking purposes, making ice, brushing teeth or bathing until it is tested by a certified laboratory for total coliform bacteria and E. coli.
Residents should use bottled, boiled or treated water until their well water has been tested and deemed safe.
- Boiling: To make water safe for drinking, cooking or washing, bring it to a rolling boil for at least one minute to kill organisms and then allow it to cool.
- Disinfecting with bleach: If boiling isn’t possible, add 1/8 of a teaspoon or about 8 drops of fresh unscented household bleach (4 to 6% active ingredient) per gallon of water. Stir well and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water is cloudy after 30 minutes, repeat the procedure once.
- Keep treated or boiled water in a closed container to prevent contamination
Use bottled water for mixing infant formula.
Where can you have your well water tested?
Contact your county health department for information on how to have your well water tested. Image: F. Alvarado Arce
Most county health departments accept water samples for testing. Contact your local department for information about what to have your water tested for (they may recommend more than just bacteria), and how to collect and submit the sample.
Contact information for Florida Health Departments can be found here: County Health Departments – Location Finder
You can also submit samples to a certified commercial lab near you. Contact information for commercial laboratories that are certified by the Florida Department of Health are found here: Laboratories certified by FDOH
This site includes county health department labs, commercial labs as well as university labs. You can search by county.
What should you do if your well water sample tests positive for bacteria?
The Florida Department of Health recommends well disinfection if water samples test positive for total coliform bacteria or for both total coliform and E. coli, a type of fecal coliform bacteria.
You can hire a local licensed well operator to disinfect your well, or if you feel comfortable, you can shock chlorinate the well yourself.
You can find information on how to shock chlorinate your well at:
After well disinfection, you need to have your well water re-tested to make sure it is safe to use. If it tests positive again for total coliform bacteria or both total coliform and E. coli call a licensed well operator to have the well inspected to get to the root of the problem.
Well pump and electrical system care
If the pump and/or electrical system have been underwater and are not designed to be used underwater, do not turn on the pump. There is a potential for electrical shock or damage to the well or pump. Stay away from the well pump while flooded to avoid electric shock.
Once the floodwaters have receded and the pump and electrical system have dried, a qualified electrician, well operator/driller or pump installer should check the wiring system and other well components.
Remember: You should have your well water tested at any time when:
- A flood occurred and your well was affected
- The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking your well water.
- A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well
- There has been any type of chemical spill (pesticides, fuel, etc.) into or near your well
The Florida Department of Health maintains an excellent website with many resources for private well users: FDOH Private Well Testing and other Reosurces which includes information on potential contaminants and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water.
It began easy enough – a tropical storm making landfall between Louisiana and Mississippi. Northwest Florida could expect some rain and rising water. Okay…
Shrimp boats from Allen Williams Seafood in Pensacola on shore. Most of the shrimp boats were.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
A few hours later the new landfall was predicted to be the Mississippi-Alabama coastline. This changes things a bit. We are expecting slightly higher winds, higher water, this will probably be a rain event. Some school districts closed; others were waiting to see. We already had our boat ready for Laura, which went further west than predicted, so we were ready. Tropical storm winds were doable as long as we did not get a direct hit. It was heading west of us. We were along the outside edge of the “cone of uncertainty”. I think we are good. Many others felt the same way.
Later, it was a sunny day and I was in a zoom meeting when my wife, a teacher, poked her head in and said they were closing schools through Wednesday. What? What is going on? Closing school for two days for a tropical storms that is going in west of Mobile AL? We should check out the weather channel. We did… it was now heading for the Alabama-Florida line. It was a strong tropical storm possible Category 1 hurricane. Maximum winds would be near 90 mph.
We made a few more preparations. We actually got some boards up when the rain began but could not get them all up (we have 23 windows in our house). The sun set, the rain came harder, the wind picked up, and the weather service changed their forecast again – winds to increase to 110 mph – probably make landfall as a Category II storm. They issued a hurricane warning for counties further east including Walton County. The high winds and rain whipped Pensacola all through the night and much of the next day. We were in the eye wall of a Category II storm. No one was prepared for this.
Several channel and day markers for navigation are damaged or missing. Mariners should be cautious.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
In the aftermath there was the typical hurricane damage. Downed trees, some on houses, boats on the beach, flooded homes, and – like other storms – some properties that were barely touched, or untouched all together. Power and water were out, and many roads were impassible. Oh, what a night…
There was something different this time. A company out of Virginia was building a new bridge over Pensacola Bay. They had completed the south bound section, tore down the old bridge, and were working on the north bound section while the south bound was being used. They had numerous barges anchored all over the bay full of work equipment, cranes, etc. For what ever reason, they did not move these into one of the bayous. The lines broke and many barges drifted. Some landed along the shorelines, some hit the bridge – the southbound section of the bridge – and it is now closed. This is part of Highway 98 from Pensacola to Gulf Breeze and used by hundreds of thousands of people each day. It is closed and traffic access for many in the community has changed. This is going to be tough.
But this newsletter is about natural resources… what about that?
A section of the new 3 Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay hangs down after being hit by one of the many barges adrift that night.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
As you might guess the water within the bay is a mess. There were hundreds of vessels that sank. You can see the fuel and oil slicks leaking from them on the surface of the water. You can also see pelicans and gulls swimming on and in it. There have been no reports of fish kills yet, but – to my knowledge – there has been no water sampling other than for bacteria. We know there were several sanitary sewer overflows due to the high rainfall amounts – I recorded 20.4” over the two-day period at my house. The water is a deep brown color and you can smell it in some locations. Health advisories are currently issued for all bodies of water that the Department of Health sample. No one should be in the water.
Along those same notes, no one should be boating at this time either. During our boat assessments of the area waters we saw numerous objects – such as docks, day markers, road work markers, and more – drifting all over the bay. Some floating, some slightly submerged. We managed to bump a submerged tree in one of the bayous and also managed to get a large sheet of plastic wrapped around our props. Boating is discouraged at this time. We know some of the fishing charters (smaller vessels) are going to try and fish this weekend. We understand this – they need the revenue – but we caution them to be on the look out for this debris.
This highway work can was piece of thousands of pieces of debris floating in the bay. Mariners be cautious.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
This drifting day marker ran aground on a shoal in the ICWW near Ft. Pickens. At the time of this photo, it was unmarked and had no light on it. Mariners be cautious.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
I have not been on the barrier islands, but photos show severe erosion on portions and there are three new inlets on the east end of Perdido Key, one of those we could see from our boat. We have no idea what impacts this storm had on the wildlife but it fair to say that things have changed. We alerted residents to be aware of snakes while doing clean up – we will alert them again. I remember after Ivan the increase in the hawk activity due to downed and thinned trees – squirrels were now easier targets. This has happened again. There is one really large red-tailed hawk hanging around our house and doing quite well.
At the time of this writing, I have not contacted the local wildlife sanctuary, but I am guessing injured and orphaned animals will increase. The wildlife sanctuary itself took on water, but almost all of the animals survived, and they are back at work.
This marina, and many others, will be out of service for quite some time.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
So, from a natural resource stance – water is poor, do not swim – fish are not dying, but would hold off fishing inland – keep an eye out for wandering wildlife, such as snakes, that have been displaced. We are expecting sick and injured birds due to oil slick and other debris issues.
There is one last lesson from Sally… be prepared. We have become very comfortable with the forecast. Northwest Florida was outside the “cone” for a tropical storm making landfall near Mississippi – and then. As we all know these storms can change direction and intensify (remember Michael’s turn east) at a moments notice. Any storm with name in the Gulf should be taken seriously, whether tropical storm or not.