New Aerial Survey Reveals California Forests Are Dying At Alarming Rate

An aerial survey conducted by the US Forest Service identified more than 100 million trees that have died as a result of California's long-standing drought

Hundreds of trees sit dead in the San Bernardino National Forest in California       Credit – AP

In a few months, the record-breaking “mega-drought” in the US state of California will enter its sixth year. Though most of the drought’s effects have not heavily affected many Californians in urban areas, California’s natural environment, particularly its forests, have suffered significantly. In recent years, the US Forest Service has been tracking the damage to California forests via aerial surveys and the news keeps getting worse. In just the last six months, 36 million more trees have died from drought conditions and other related factors, placing the total tree death count for 2016 at an astounding 62 million trees. This represents a startling 100% increase in dead trees across the date since 2015. This year’s count has now brought the total of dead trees since the drought began to 102 million. The most recent aerial survey also found that millions more trees were severely weakened and are expected to die in the coming months.

Most of these dead trees are concentrated in ten counties in southern and central California, though the Forest Service also identified increases in tree mortality in the Northern part of the state. Part of the problem, in addition to the long-standing, severe drought, has been an explosion in the bark beetle population. Healthy trees are normally able to fend off bark beetle infestation easily, as the insect’s role is to decompose aging, weakened trees in forests in order to make room for new tree seedlings. However, the drought and other conditions have weakened so many trees that the beetles population has been exploding, threatening to transform into a plague that could further decimate the already threatened forests.

calitreedeathprogression

Credit – US Forest Service

California forests are also confronted by another problem, one which the massive tree die-off is only making worse. This year, California had a record-setting wildfire season. Just one of the wildfires California experienced this year, the Blue Cut fire, was responsible for the destruction of 30,000 acres of damage. Another wildfire this past June claimed over 60,000 acres. The dying trees, now a common fixture in many California forests, serve as fodder for the fires, making them more expansive, more destructive, and more difficult to control.

Another troubling fact is that the weakened state of California forests also endangers the state’s quickly-shrinking water supply. California’s national forests provide nearly half of the state’s water. The death of the forests along with further persistence of the drought could easily bankrupt this important water resource sooner rather than later. In fact, last year, NASA scientists argued that California had about one year left of drinking water before running out. If their estimates hold true, California, the country’s most populous state, could be running out of water any day now. There are also broader implications for the country as as whole as California produces the vast majority of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Over 90% of all US broccoli, artichokes, walnuts, kiwis, plums, garlic, and celery are produced in California and would all but disappear from US markets if California ran out of water. The current drought has already led to billions of losses for the state’s agricultural industry. Though the drought is currently only a California state emergency, it could quickly turn into a national one. The state of California’s once mighty forests seem to suggest that this day is not as far away as some may think.

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