In certain hotspots around New Jersey, what were once thick, dark forests may be shriveling up and taking on an eerie appearance. But they haven't been visited by spirits; they've been visited by saltwater.

These are called "ghost forests," and they are particularly noticeable in New Jersey in the low-lying terrain of the Delaware Bayshore and the Mullica River basin, according to Rick Lathrop, Rutgers professor and director of the university's Center for Remote Sensing & Spatial Analysis.

In these places, the ghost forest phenomenon has been developing for hundreds, even thousands of years, but sea level rise brought on by climate change is speeding up its impact, Lathrop said.

"We've done some modeling to look at what areas are vulnerable moving into the future, and those are the two areas that really stand out," he said. "We're seeing this process, which is a natural, ongoing process, also starting to accelerate."

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So what distinguishes a ghost forest, exactly? These are tree-laden areas, Lathrop said, growing at the edges of coastal bays and salt marshes, that have been inundated by saltwater, in turn saturating the soil.

Some trees, and roots, can't stand up to that chemical combination, so they gradually die and lose their limbs, giving off what Lathrop calls a "ghostly, spectral quality."

"As sea level has increased, you will get occasional overwash events, so that salty water will come in," he said. "Over time, they've lost their bark and they're weathered from the storms, so they're weathered into kind of a grayish color."

Lathrop said the Atlantic white cedar is especially sensitive, having specifically taken on a lot of damage during Superstorm Sandy. But red cedar, red maple, and pitch pine seem to take the increased salinity more in stride.

But one question remains: Can the ghost forest trend be stopped?

Perhaps. A new report from Rutgers suggests strategic land conservation, and a focus on coastal restoration, as ways to protect these valuable trees, with sea levels continuing their expected rise along the entire Northeast coastline.

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