Phantom Forests
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Phantom Forests of the Oregon Coast

Ghost Forests Appear at Low Tide

(Published in The EarthSphere Blog – Cover Image: Phantom Forest; ©ArcheanArt)

Pacific winds batter the northern Oregon coast as winter arrives, bringing changes to tidal and current patterns. These changes pull beach sand from the shorelines and move it into offshore sand bars, submerged beneath dark green Pacific seas. But these waters are subject to the forces of nature. Earth, sun, and moon are in syzygy on the new and full moon as the three celestial bodies align, allowing Earth to experience the combined gravitational pull of the other two bodies. These conditions produce a spring tide, amplifying the normal tidal cycle, making high tides higher and low tides lower. In the throws of this gravitational overload, the low-tide waters recede farther from the shoreline and expose the phantom forests of the Oregon Coast. Trees from 4,000 years ago rise out of the ocean.

The story sounds more like a myth than reality, but reality can be just as strange as fiction. Along the Oregon Coast, South of Tillamook Bay and near Cascade Head, the Neskowin Ghost Forest provides an eerie reminder of a long-gone forest of Sitka spruce trees that graced the coast for thousands of years before white settlers arrived to take indigenous lands from the State’s original inhabitants. These trees towered over 200 feet tall in their prime and lived for 400 to 800 years.

Today, the high strength to weight ratio of Sitka spruce wood makes it a valuable resource. The wood has marvelous acoustic properties and is sought after for making soundboards in pianos, guitars, and violins.

For hundreds of years, the Neskowin Ghost Forest was more legend than fact, briefly appearing from its grave every several decades. But in the winter of 1997 through 1998, powerful storms lashed the coast, carrying away the top layer of sand and fully exposing the remanent tree stumps.

More Phantoms

Ghost forests are not limited to the Neskowin area, and they often emerge from different episodes in the past. The Neskowin Sitka spruce stumps are about 2000 years old, based on carbon dating. But farther north around Cannon Beach, Arcadia Beach, and Arch Cape, the ghost forests date to 4,000 years ago. A ghost forest in Netarts Bay reaches back 80,000 years into the past.

The ancient Netarts forest harkens back to a time when Earth was transitioning into the most recent ice age, the Wisconsin glaciation period. The planet had not reached its coldest phase, but the climate was still much cooler than today. To our current knowledge, humans had not yet set foot in North America. Unlike the younger ghost forest, the Netarts Bay stumps are exposed in clay cliffs and not arrayed along the low tide line.

Over 40 known locations have ghost forests. Most of them are in the Northern coastal zone, but localities in Southern Oregon like Whiskey Run, Nesika Beach, and Otter Point also have periodically exposed forests when low tides and winter sand loss conspire together to create the right conditions.

Many descriptions of these phantom forests speculate on their origins, proposing a variety of theories. One part these stories usually hold in common is the method of preservation. The remnant tree stumps are not petrified wood, as some describe. They are ancient wooden stumps preserved from decay by the geological conditions surrounding their burial.

The Origins of a Phantom Forest

These stumps were buried in a mix of sediments that allowed anoxic conditions to develop. Once the wood was deprived of oxygen, decomposition stopped because the bacteria that normally feasted on decaying wood required free oxygen to keep doing their job. Now the stumps are again exposed to the atmosphere, and natural decay eats away at the ancient wood. Researchers have noted the decreasing number of visible stumps in the Neskowin forests as they succumb to rot.

Beyond this common understanding of preservation, the theories regarding the origins of these forests split into two categories: sensationalist and scientific. Many articles attribute the burial of the ghost forests to a catastrophic event caused by the well-known Cascadia earthquake of 1700. Without proof, known documentation of drowned forest from this quake is used as the causal event for Oregon’s ghost forests. This version of the story attributes an earthquake, tsunami, and land subsidence to the destruction of the original forests. Subsequent burial, once the stumps were below sea level, led to their preservation.

It is a dramatic story indeed, but unfortunately, scientific research interferes with this entertaining tale. Reality is far less sensational. Geologists who have studied the ghost forests believe that many of them were buried by the longer-term process of dune encroachment. Over many decades sand dunes migrated into the oceanside forests, covering the base of the trees and eventually killing them. The tricky part of the story is that there are areas where the earthquake and tsunami did fell forests and bury them. The Oregon Coast ghost forests are just not part of that sensational story. But this fact doesn’t detract from their intrigue and mystery.

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Neskowin Ghost Forest (Source: Atlas Obscura)

Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) (Source: Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

Explanations of Neskowin Ghost Forest Wrong, Say Oregon Coast Geologists(Source: Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

In Search of More Oregon Coast Ghost Forests — Where to Find Ghost Forests (Source: Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

New Ghost Forest Found at N. Oregon Coast’s Happy Camp a Chilling Reminder (Source: Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

Quaternary geochronology (Source: Britannica)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.