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Explanations of Neskowin Ghost Forest Wrong, Say Oregon Coast Geologists

Update January 2021
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Explanations of Neskowin Ghost Forest Wrong, Say Oregon Coast Geologists

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(Neskowin, Oregon) – Those inimitable and freaky stumps of mystery on the north Oregon coast: the ghost forests of Neskowin. They’re a lively point of discussion and publicity for a number of reasons, mainly because they’re largely the only ones visible all year.

They’re also the subject of bad information and rumor.

It turns out, just about every piece out there on the Internet about them has it wrong. Very wrong. And it’s ticking off some geologists. However, digging deeper into the truth about these funky finds in the sand also reveals other wonders: like a bunch of ghost forests no one knows about and one example in Tillamook County that goes back a whopping 80,000 years.

This correction comes from one of the scientists who discovered what was really going on: Dr. Curt Peterson.

When it comes to Neskowin’s ghost forest, somehow every publication in Oregon and elsewhere has the erroneous, misleading idea that these were caused by some sudden quake dropping the ground and immersing them, thus killing them. While it’s true they were killed by sand encroaching around them, and then paradoxically preserved by that sand by getting cut off from the decaying effects of oxygen and microbes, how this happened is different than anyone has been telling you.

What occurred here is called “gradual dune encroachment,” meaning dunes simply built up in the area some two thousand years ago and covered up the Sitka trees. It probably took a few decades if not more. Indeed most of the ghost forests in the sands of the Oregon coast happened this way – not in some dramatic, abrupt drop.

Exactly why this happened? It’s often a highly complex set of circumstances, but in the simplest terms landscapes change. Large dunes come and go, and sometimes they bury stuff when they start building up.

Another rumor that gets passed around is that they were buried during the 1700 quake off the Oregon coast that wrecked chunks of this shoreline with a horrifying tsunami. Neskowin’s ghost forests did not happen that way (although other ghost stumps farther inland did – and that’s where it gets all tricky and fascinating).

It comes down to this: ask any geologist in the state that knows the coastline, and they’ll all refer you to Roger Hart (now deceased) and retired PSU professor Dr. Curt Peterson. Those two wrote the definitive paper on this, and they proved Neskowin and most of the other ghost stumps along this shoreline came from something gradual and not a sudden quake, known as subsidence.

“When it comes to misinformation that is too sexy not to repeat, who can say which person drew the conclusion that the beach stumps were from coseismic subsidence?,” said Seaside geologist Tom Horning.

He said Hart and Peterson had the ultimate word on this, and PSU’s Scott Burns reiterated that when Oregon Coast Beach Connection asked him. One geologist couldn’t definitively say they knew which theory was correct but agreed Hart and Peterson were the go-to guys on the subject.

You can see part of the 2007 research paper here at Wiley and Sons, but unfortunately the entire read takes money.

The problem with this error, is well, it’s a big error being propagated by everyone, for one thing. The biggest papers in the state, including The Oregonian and the Statesman Journal, to Travel Oregon down to dozens of travel and coastal bloggers have constantly put out the quake idea. Then, frustratingly, when you go to check on where they got their answer to this, you find each and every one simply said “researchers said” and no actual source is quoted. No one. So who started this rumor?

One, Hart didn’t help his own cause. There’s a 2004 article from Sunset Magazine where he’s talking off the cuff and said he "thinks" Neskowin was buried by a quake. Others may have been quoted elsewhere when they were talking while shooting from the hip.

“I think it started with some OSU professor back when I was first there,” Peterson said. “It just caught on from there.”

Then he laughed. “There are not two schools of thought on this.”

Another misunderstanding has come from a technically perfect article from OPB which talks about ghost forests in Oregon being used to prove the great quake of 1700. It becomes misleading because it uses a photograph of Neskowin’s ghost forest, and then the article doesn’t explain which ghost forests were examined, nor does it differentiate between the beach stumps (thousands of years old) and those in the estuaries (which were actually from the 1700 tsunami).

Why does this matter? The main reason it matters, Peterson said, is that all these ghost forests in the sand (there are some 40 spots with them) are eroding away. It’s a signal and gauge of how sea levels are rising. The wrong origin theory gets in the way of correct science, essentially.

The real shocker about Neskowin’s forest: it’s lost about a third of its stumps since Hart started cataloging them in the early 2000s. Peterson said more have gone since Hart passed away.

Another revelation in all this is that there are other ghost forests unknown by most visitors, and these do tell a scary tale of earthquakes and tsunamis.

According to Burns, Peterson and Horning, every single estuary on the Oregon coast has “ghost forests” left over from that enormous Cascadia subduction quake of 1700, after a massive tsunami came in and roughed everything up for miles. There are essentially two different kinds of ghost forests: those in the estuaries and those in the sand.

There are other such stands from previous tsunami / quake events going back thousands of years, aside from the 1700 remnants. See full list of Oregon Coast Ghost Forests

These you can experience first hand, though they’re not nearly as spectacular or trippy as those on the beaches. They’re in estuaries at the Necanicum River at Seaside, the Nehalem River by Manzanita, the Siletz at Lincoln City – all of them. In fact, Horning has some in his backyard (he lives by Seaside’s estuary).

How to find them?

“You just have to stand on 101 and look,” Burns said. “That is what I do.”

They admittedly aren't interesting to look at: they look like rather newish stumps.

Yet another amazing find is made if you talk to Peterson. It turns out, Netarts has a set of ghost forests that are 80,000 years old. Most ghost forests around these parts are about 4,000 years old; Neskowin’s are younger than the majority. Hart found some as old as 5,000 on the south coast. Since their 2007 paper, Peterson discovered these on the Netarts Bay going all the way back to 80,000 years ago. It’s remarkable to find them that old here.

“You can see them and touch them,” Peterson said. “They’re right on the edge of the bay.”

Tillamook County may have just found its oldest attraction. Oregon Coast Beach Connection will feature more on these and other fun geologic finds later. Oregon Coast Hotels in this area - Where to eat - Maps - Virtual Tours



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