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Rising Sea Levels Threaten Rare Holly Forest In Sandy Hook, N.J.: 'The Shoreline Is Migrating Inland'

SANDY HOOK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- A unique forest in Monmouth County, New Jersey may be threatened by rising sea levels.

Off a biking route, down a sandy path padded with leaves, lives a holly forest. It's a rare maritime forest, and scientists are warning it could be destroyed by climate change.

"As a result of both sea level rise and shoreline erosion -- these two things are going together -- the shoreline is migrating inland," Rutgers University coastal sciences professor Norbert Psuty told CBS2's Meg Baker.

Norbert is a coastal geomorphologist who has been studying the changes on Sandy Hook since 1992. He says a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey is alarming -- many habitats will change as water levels rise and plants vulnerable to sea water die.

Sandy Hook holly forest
A unique forest in Monmouth County, New Jersey may be threatened by rising sea levels. (CBS2)

Holly trees collect underground fresh water, which sits on top of lower sea water. As sea water rises, fresh water rises too and threatens to drown the roots.

"Why are holly forest so important to preserve, and why do they do well in the sandy soil?" Baker asked.

"They're a unique ecological system. They basically occupy places that other vegetation doesn't necessarily compete with quite as well," Psuty explained.

The bayside holly forest is one of two known old growth American holly forests. The other is on Fire Island.

"Is there anything that can be done?" asked Baker.

"Well, I suppose. Identify other places along the coast that have a similar kind of ecological habitat," Psuty replied. "So it's a matter of finding the niche and then essentially transplanting."

The vegetation helps shore up the land, protecting from further erosion. Without it, the recreational activities enjoyed by so many will be unavailable.

Other resources are at risk too, like the historic buildings at Fort Hancock and freshwater wells in the area.

USGS researchers found that portions of Sandy Hook's plants could drown and damage critical animal and insect habitats by 2100.

CBS2's Meg Baker contributed to this report.

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