The issue of "ghost forests" is a familiar one to climate researchers. The term refers to how rising sea levels—or, more specifically, encroaching saltwater—kills trees along the coast, per Live Science. But a new study out of North Carolina suggests that "it's not just the fringe that’s getting wetter,” Duke University biologist Emily Ury says in a statement. The study found that the state's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has lost 11% of its tree cover since 1985—that's about 47,000 acres of forest—and roughly half of the loss occurred about a mile from shore, reports the Raleigh News & Observer. One issue is that the same drainage ditches and canals originally intended to drain water out of the region now serve as pathways for saltwater, which is lethal to forestland, to enter.
That problem became especially pronounced with Hurricane Irene of 2011, which flooded the region and resulted in the most notable die-off of trees in the refuge during the 35-year span studied. The refuge is particularly at risk because it sits less than 2 feet above sea level, and sea levels are expected to rise from 2 to 5 feet along the Carolina coast by the end of the century, per the Duke release. “These unprecedented rates of deforestation and land cover change due to climate change may become the status quo for coastal regions worldwide, with implications for wetland function, wildlife habitat and global carbon cycling," the researchers write in the study. The researchers also warn of a dangerous cycle: Fewer trees mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can make climate change worse and lead to more extreme weather events. (Read more discoveries stories.)