Ghost (Forest) Stories: Unearthing History and Climate Change (2024-2025)


The term “ghost forests” refers to the result of the rapid and extensive death of coastal forests in response to sea level rise. These forests are a striking example of the impacts of climate change. Recent analysis shows that the phenomenon is widespread throughout the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the U.S., and that North Carolina is one of the areas with the most rapid change. In just 35 years, over 10% of the forest area in the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in N.C. transitioned into ghost forest. 

While the fingerprint of climate change is obvious, it is also important to recognize that this landscape has experienced a long and complicated history of modification by humans. These legacies have consequences for present-day ecosystem responses to climate stressors. The patterns of ecosystem change today cannot fully be understood without bringing to light the history of agriculture, forestry and drainage that has shaped these landscapes.

Additionally, human responses to these changing landscapes are likely to be shaped by the unique needs and desires of local communities. A multidisciplinary lens is necessary to incorporate history, anthropology and ecology to build a more complete picture of the intersection of past influences and current patterns of change within ghost forests.

Project Description

This project team will analyze, trace, visualize and provide context for patterns of ecological change and land use over time focusing specifically on North Carolina wetlands (Albemarle Peninsula). Team members will develop an ArcGIS StoryMap, a tool that incorporates place-based information from multiple sources, to help examine and visualize forest loss, provide a resource for communities experiencing this complex phenomenon, and help guide policy that provides both realism and hope for coastal landscapes. 

The team will use archaeological, archival, oral historical and ecological data to determine how coastal landscapes were used by their inhabitants from Indigenous peoples to the present. Team members will establish a timeline of deforestation and replanting cycles and map infrastructural development and its impacts on water levels and ecosystems. 

The project will be divided into three interacting subteams focused on historical approaches, ecological approaches, and data synthesis and storytelling, respectively. The historical approaches subteam will use a combination of archival research and the collection of oral histories to establish a narrative of change over time, focusing particularly on human uses and impacts on coastal forest landscapes. 

The ecological approaches subteam will work with an existing National Science Foundation-funded Research Coordination Network to assemble a database of studies of the impact of saltwater intrusion and sea level rise on coastal plant communities. Team members will analyze patterns of change in coastal communities in the context of the historical data collected by the historical approaches subteam.

Finally, a geographic information system (GIS) subteam will engage spatial and digital humanities methods to develop a StoryMap to present the story of North Carolina's “Ghost Forests.” The GIS subteam will assess data needed for the StoryMap, then map out a narrative that best communicates the data to stakeholders and community members. Team members will use novel methods for spatially visualizing tree and forest data as well as multimedia such as audio from oral histories, digitized historic aerial photography, original narrative text and more.

Anticipated Outputs

ArcGIS StoryMap; public presentations; archival recordings and transcripts of collected oral histories

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3 graduate students and 9 undergraduate students from an array of disciplines. Students with backgrounds in biology or environmental science who are interested in working with large datasets will be preferred for selection to the ecological approaches subteam. For the historical approaches subteam, students with interests in history, cultural anthropology or documentary studies will be preferred to perform archival work with collecting oral histories. Students interested in art, art history, visual studies and/or geospatial analysis will be preferred for selection to the GIS subteam to develop skills in the digital humanities. Justin Wright will serve as project manager.

Members of the historical approaches subteam will consult the Forest History Society, the Manteo Historical Society, legislative collections in the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, scientific and natural history texts from before the twentieth century, plantation and lumber industry records, existing oral histories and folk collections and archaeological data.

Students and team leaders in the GIS subteam will be expected to take Edward Triplett's existing “Creative Cartography” course in Spring 2025. Subteam members will learn about counter-mapping, spatial theory and critical cartography in addition to in-depth lessons on map symbology in the ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online.

In Fall 2024, the team will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10:05-11:20 a.m. All team members will travel to Albemarle Peninsula for an initial site visit and some students will return to collect oral histories.


Fall 2024 – Summer 2025

  • Fall 2024: Initialize consultation with GIS; visit field site; visit to Forest History Society (Durham); assess existing ecological and historical data; develop oral history protocols
  • Spring 2025: Start GIS work; collect oral histories; synthesize StoryMap
  • Summer 2025 (optional): Wrap-up project


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Emily Ury measures soil salinity in a ghost forest, by Emily Bernhardt/Duke University

Image: Emily Ury measures soil salinity in a ghost forest, by Emily Bernhardt/Duke University

Team Leaders

  • Hannah Conway, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Ryan Emanuel, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Hannah Jacobs, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Justin Wright, Arts & Sciences-Biology

/graduate Team Members

  • Aeran Coughlin, Ecology-PHD

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Robert Buerglener, Arts & Sciences-Information Science and Information Studies
  • Ed Triplett, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies