RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Imagine a forest the size of Raleigh and Durham. Now imagine a forest that size dying every single year.

It’s an unfortunate reality that’s happening right now across the North American Coastal Plain, including part of our backyard here in North Carolina.

Our North Carolina beaches are a popular vacation spot or weekend getaway where we soak up the sun and relax to the sound of waves. But just a few miles inland, our coastal wetlands are facing a crisis. Vulnerable ecosystems are changing, and trees are dying, leaving nothing but ghosts.

“A ghost forest I think is a very fitting name because the ghost part, you think about a ghost it’s a relic of what used to be,” explains Dr. Elliott White Jr.

Dr. White led a team of researchers across the North American Coastal Plain to study and document the loss of our coastal forested wetlands, and what they found is sobering.

Their research showed that the North American Coastal Plane was losing 684 square kilometers, or 264 square miles of coastal forested wetlands every year. That’s the size of Raleigh and Durham combined.

Duke Professor Dr. Emily Bernhardt was part of this research group and says what started out as a restoration study became something more.

“They’re quite striking, and to us, they became an indicator of a much larger problem,” she explains. “How prominent are these, what’s causing them, where’s it happening, and how fast?”

In previous centuries, these forests were drained and cut down for agriculture, but that now only accounts for 3% of the total loss. So they looked at the bigger picture.

“It’s happening all over the place, anywhere water tables are rising, or marine salts are getting upslope and salinizing the soil,” says Dr. Bernhardt.

So why should we care? The reality is the trees dying can’t thrive in water that is becoming saltier and saltier, so as sea-levels rise and stronger hurricanes produce more storm surges, it’s harder for these trees to survive.

“We can’t reverse climate change overnight. We can sign a law and stop deforestation overnight, but you can’t reverse climate change overnight. So these systems in some ways are on a ticking clock in terms of what we can do to save them,” Dr. White explains.

If we do nothing, what’s left of these coastal forests will be gone within the century.

Native cultures have a spiritual connection with these areas, they provide habitats for numerous species of wildlife, and they’re even nature’s natural water filters!

“If you eat seafood or you like to swim in clear waters on the coast, these wetlands play a really important role in protecting our water quality,” Dr. Bernhardt says.

We can’t save the forests overnight, and they may never fully return to their former glory, but Dr. White and his team of researchers are working to create opportunities and awareness so these forests can be around for generations to come.

“Even though I said these systems are hard to restore, plant some trees,” Dr. White says. “Some of them will come back, so buying land and trying to create more of this system a little farther inland so that they can grow healthy and survive.”

To understand both the natural and climate change drivers of sea-level rise, you can read more here.