healthy cypress trees

Cypress Trees as Sentinels of the Sounds

Author: Marcelo Ardon, NCSU

To celebrate Citizen Science Month, the Albemarle Pamlico National Estuary Partnership is featuring a citizen science project from STAC member Marcelo Ardón.    

Bald cypress and pond cypress are two closely related tree species commonly found along the shorelines of our estuaries and rivers. More than 400 years ago, the explorer Thomas Harriott described how Native Americans made their canoes out of cypress trees. It is amazing to think that some of the trees alive back then are still living along our shores. Scientists have found bald cypress trees in North Carolina that are over 1,600 years old, meaning the trees were alive before the Europeans’ arrival. What stories could these trees tell us about the changes they have seen along our shores?

We know that our coast is changing. Erosion is taking a toll on many beaches on the Outer Banks. Tidal records going back to the 1930’s show that high tides are higher now than they used to be. Unfortunately, most of our understanding comes from the Outer Banks or the ocean front; we don’t know as much about what is happening along the shorelines of the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. Cypress trees can serve as sentinels of our sounds, if we learn how to read their stories.

Even though a cypress tree living in the water is a common sight when visiting the Sounds, their seeds require dry land to get established. That means that all those trees sitting in water today, started their lives on dry land many years ago. They can live in up to three feet of water, as long as the water is not too salty. If the trees are flooded with too much water, or too much salt, they begin to die. As they die, their trunks and branches stay standing for a long time, creating “ghost forests”, which are becoming a common sight around the shores of our estuaries and rivers.

We have an ongoing citizen science project called Sentinels of the Sounds that is seeking to collect photos, locations, and basic information about cypress trees along the shores of our sounds and rivers. Our goal is to begin to connect the dots to better understand how our shores are changing. We launched the project in October 2016 and have collected approximately 70 observations of cypress trees so far, but we need many more. We are currently using the data to groundtruth a remotely sensed classification system that maps ghost forests.

In the future, we want to use the data to examine changes in cypress stands over time. If you are out in the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound or some of the major rivers fishing, bird watching, or simply enjoying nature and you see these beautiful trees, snap a picture of them and send them to us. You can use mobile device applications, or upload your photos onto the SentinelsNC iNaturalist website.  While you are at it, please also tag the APNEP iNaturalist page!  

Learn more: 

If you want to learn about these trees as Sentinels of the Sounds, and how you can participate in this project you can find more information here:

Editor's note:

Marcelo Ardón has been a member of the APNEP Science and Technical Advisory Committee since 2014.  He has also participated as a member of the APNEP Nutrients Workgroup convened to develop nutrient criteria for Albemarle Sound.  

An earlier version of this article was originally published on Coastal Review Online, at