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'Ghost forests' threaten New Jersey's water, ecosystem

A disturbing sight is growing in southern New Jersey's woodlands.

Acres of "ghost forests" have been popping up as an increase of saltwater in the soil has been killing what remains of the Atlantic white cedar trees that populate the area. The situation was part of a cycle where past climate change events, such as Superstorm Sandy, and logging created a situation where the soil lost its fresh water, according to experts.

"It's that it's been happening incredibly fast and that we have so little of this precious resource," Todd Wyckoff, the New Jersey State Forester, told ABC News Live.

PHOTO: Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey are dying for stretches of miles creating a 'ghost forest.' (ABC News)
PHOTO: Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey are dying for stretches of miles creating a 'ghost forest.' (ABC News)

Foresters are now racing to restore the land with the hope that ghost forests can cut off an ecological ripple that affects hundreds of thousands of people.

MORE: Deforestation isn't just an environmental problem. It's a public health crisis.

Lying just beneath the surface of southern New Jersey flows 17 trillion gallons of fresh water. The Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer spans nearly a third of the state and is responsible for the drinking water of nearly 1 million people.

Wyckoff said the cedars were key in keeping the aquifer free of saltwater.

"These are kind of the kidneys of the Pinelands here and they're filtering the water and making that the quintessential cedar water of the pinelands," he said.

Bill Pitts, a senior zoologist at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, told ABC News Live that the forest is also a key ecosystem for a host of fauna.

"It's part of the greater ecosystem that's really at the crux of having diversity, like having a cedar swamp in the middle of these pines. When you have this broader mosaic of habitat types, it serves to complete more of the life up here you can think of as pausing there," Pitts said.

PHOTO: Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey are dying for stretches of miles creating a 'ghost forest.' (ABC News)
PHOTO: Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey are dying for stretches of miles creating a 'ghost forest.' (ABC News)

The cedars were used by loggers for various materials, including homes, for decades, and replenishing them became a problem as sea level has risen 4 inches in the last 30 years and crept into the soil, according to experts.

The damage has been so bad that the state has gone from more than 125,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar more than a hundred years ago to 25,000 today, according to experts.

But there are restoration efforts focused on bringing back the lost acres.

MORE: How PFAS are entering America's water supply

In 2012, a cedar patch at Double Trouble State Park was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.

Today a state effort is underway to replant trees to make up for the ones that were lost in the storm, according to Wyckoff.

PHOTO: Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey are dying for stretches of miles creating a 'ghost forest.' (ABC News)
PHOTO: Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey are dying for stretches of miles creating a 'ghost forest.' (ABC News)

"What you're seeing here is a full crop of new growth, of cedar trees that, through restoration efforts, we're hoping will mature into a full cedar city," he said.

Wyckoff said that it's going to take a lot more work to mitigate the damage.

"It's going to take some effort to make sure that it's in a stable form and in a place where it can perpetuate itself on the landscape," he said.

'Ghost forests' threaten New Jersey's water, ecosystem originally appeared on abcnews.go.com