Principal factors influencing tree growth in low-lying mid atlantic coastal forests

Leeann Haaf, Salli F. Dymond, Danielle A. Kreeger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Flood frequencies in coastal forests are increasing as sea level rise accelerates from 3–4 mm year−1 to possibly more than 10 mm year−1 by the end of this century. As flooding increases, coastal forests retreat, ghost forests form, and coastal marshes migrate inland. The existence of ghost forests makes the mechanism of forest retreat clear: low-lying trees become more exposed to coastal flooding until they ultimately die. Variability in these retreat rates, however, makes it difficult to predict where and when retreat will continue to occur. Understanding tree growth responses to tidal water levels relative to other environmental factors is a critical step in elucidating the factors that influence retreat variability. Here, dendrochronology was used to study factors that contribute to variations in growth patterns in four coastal forests fringing the Delaware and Barnegat Bays. Species chosen for study included loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), pitch pine (Pinus rigida), and American holly (Ilex opaca). Pearson’s and partial correlation tests showed that growth relationships with monthly environmental conditions varied across sites and were moderate in strength (generally R < 0.5), but each site had at least one significant growth-water level correlation. As coastal flooding exposure is spatially dependent, tree chronologies were also separated into high and low elevation groups. Pearson’s and partial correlation tests of the mean differences between elevation groups showed that at some sites, low elevation trees grew less than high elevation trees when water levels were high, as might be expected. At one site, however, lower elevation trees grew more when water levels were higher, which suggests that other interacting factors—regardless of current flood exposure—potentially have positive, yet likely temporary, influence over tree growth in these low-lying areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1351
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding: This research was funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters Wetland Program Development grant number WD83692201.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • Coastal flooding
  • Dendrochronology
  • Ilex opaca
  • Pinus rigida
  • Pinus taeda
  • Sea level rise


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