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"Ghost forests" serve as haunting reminder of climate change. Here's New Jersey's action plan.

New Jersey's "ghost forests" are an indicator of climate change. The state is fighting back.
New Jersey's "ghost forests" are an indicator of climate change. The state is fighting back. 04:45

NEW LISBON, N.J. (CBS) - Deep in the heart of Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in Burlington County, New Jersey, where lush trees tower above streams gushing with water, is an area that symbolizes death.

It's a large cluster of gray-colored, dead Atlantic White Cedar trees that make up a "ghost forest."

"It's really visually striking, isn't it?" New Jersey State Forester Todd Wyckoff said. "It does have an eerie presence. It's kind of a foreboding eerie existence of a ghost forest."

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How climate change has led to an increase in "ghost forests"

While visually impressive, Wyckoff said the site is a total loss, part of an alarming decline in Atlantic White Cedars due to climate change.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said back when Europeans first arrived in America, there were about 100,000 acres of Atlantic White Cedars in New Jersey. Now, there are only about 25,000 acres left.

The reason for the drop is due, in part, to sea level rise.

Carbon emissions from cars and factories are changing the climate by trapping the heat and making the planet warmer.

Those emissions melt glaciers and warm up oceans, causing water to rise.

"Cedar is not particularly tolerant of saltwater," supervising forester Bill Zipse said. "So, as you get sea level rise and saltwater intrusion into the groundwater, that really impacts cedar."

DEP's plan to restore Atlantic White Cedars in New Jersey

Zipse said climate change also causes more frequent storms.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy wiped out several Atlantic White Cedars at Double Trouble State Park in Ocean County.

"It looked like pick-up sticks with lines of snow on top of them," Zipse said. "Pretty much everything that we're standing in here had been blown down."

NJDEP removed all the downed trees, which allowed the Atlantic White Cedars still standing around the edges of the area to drop new seeds, which led to new Atlantic White Cedars.

"The seeds are the size of pepper grains, so they're really really tiny seeds," Zipse said. "These cones open up and then get into the soil, and they either get stored if they're not in sunlight, they'll stay viable in the soil for a long period of time or they'll start growing into new trees."

NJDEP is now spending millions of dollars to restore 10,000 acres of Atlantic White Cedars in 10 years.

Why restoring Atlantic White Cedars is important

One of the reasons the agency is focusing on restoring Atlantic White Cedars is that the trees act as an effective filtration system for groundwater, according to NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette.

"We lose too much of that part of our ecosystem," LaTourette said. "We end up paying to build water treatment plants where the forest once was that was purifying our groundwater that we later drank."

One of Atlantic White Cedars' other benefits is that they capture carbon, which is responsible for warming the planet and fueling climate change.

Wyckoff said the life and death of these Atlantic White Cedars are a canary in a coal mine.

"This, to me, is a signal," Wyckoff said. "A call to action for all of us that climate change is here at our doorstep, and that New Jersey is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change."

But Zipse said humans can change their actions by helping to save Atlantic White Cedars.

"So many of the climate change-related messages right now are like, 'Oh we're doomed,'" Zipse said. "It doesn't have to be with that. There are ways to interact with an ecosystem where you can have a positive outcome."

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