Iconic California Redwoods, Redwoods and Joshua Trees Threatened by Climate Change

California’s iconic coastal redwoods, some standing before Julius Caesar ruled Rome, are fighting for their lives. They are increasingly threatened by forest fires What are they bigger and more intense due to human impact climate change.

And it’s not just redwoods, giant redwoods and Joshua trees are in trouble too. These majestic trees are unique to the West Coast and are an integral part of the fabric of California’s historic landscape. But the experts who know and love these trees are genuinely concerned about their future.

Last year 4.2 million acres burned in California worst fire season on file. Scientists say the weather warms up these fires will grow bigger at a fast pace. And while sequoias and giant sequoias have historically been resistant to natural wildfires, these fires of unnatural intensity are beginning to overwhelm their defenses, with the fires reaching higher in their canopies.

An estimated 10% of the ancient redwoods that burned during the 2020 fire season in places like Big Basin Redwood State Park, 50 miles south of San Francisco, will die.

A couple hundred miles east, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 350 giant sequoias died when flames shot hundreds of feet up, burning down to the canopy. To the south, in the Mojave Desert, about 1.3 million Joshua trees were burned when fiery tornadoes tore through the invasive grass.

Joshua trees after the fire
Charred Joshua trees are seen during the Bobcat Fire in Valyermo, California, on September 18, 2020.

KYLE GRILLOT / AFP via Getty Images

CBS News visited Big Basin State Park earlier this month and met with two longtime forestry scientists, Todd Keeler-Wolf, a vegetation ecologist, and Joanne Kerbavaz, the Big Basin lead scientist.

“This fire was on a scale and intensity that there are no records of fires that have been so large in this neighborhood,” Kerbavaz said of the August fire that swept through most of the park and engulfed 18,000 acres.

It started as part of a lightning siege than 14,000 strikes that started 350 fires across the state. Lightning events like that are almost unheard of in California; This was the result of a surge of humidity from a decomposing tropical system off Baja California.

While that lightning bolt can be considered just a climate opportunity, it coincided with a sweltering summer heat wave which was undoubtedly compounded by climate change. This heat, in addition to a prolonged drought caused by the weather, dried up the vegetation, turning it into a powder keg waiting for the lightning to start fires.

In her 22 years at the Big Basin, Kerbavaz says she has witnessed change: a once-auspicious climate has undergone significant change.

“There is a consensus that things are getting hotter and drier, and most of us who live in this area can feel that,” he said. “And there is a consensus that fog patterns have changed and that we know that fog patterns in redwood forests are essential to maintaining redwood forests in this climate.”

He worries that in the coming decades, if the fog continues to shrink, the suitable habitat for redwoods that live farther from the ocean will also shrink.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, San Jose, California, wildfires.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California was affected by a wildfire in August 2020 that burned approximately 97% of the park’s 18,224 acres. State Parks Security Officer and Ranger Gabe McKenna, center, watches the damage. The park contains 4,400 acres of ancient redwood forest and 11,3000 acres of secondary growth.

Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Since 2000, the western US has experienced a mega drought, one of its worst droughts in 1,200 years. On top of that, since 1970, summers in California have warmed between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit. These types of warmer and drier weather conditions set the stage for a longer fire season with larger and more intense fires.

For redwoods, despite their extensive root system, 12-inch-thick bark, and having survived repeated fires over their thousands of years of existence, these recent intense fires are overwhelming their natural defenses.

Keeler-Wolf has a duty to inspect the remains of the August fires. Pointing to a huge ancient sequoia, he speaks of the vastness of the fire.

“It affected the entire tree to the top. This is a candidate to be declared dead, but we have not pronounced it yet,” he said.

Both scientists agree that these coastal redwoods are very hardy. Even when badly damaged by fire, new trees can sprout again from their trunks and even their roots.

Kerbavaz explained, “There are also dormant buds at the base that can sprout again and form new trees. Even before the flames died down, the plants were beginning to return. The redwoods were sprouting at the same time as the adjacent areas. Fire. ”

Although about 1 in 10 of the redwoods burned won’t make it, historically speaking, Kerbavaz says 90% should survive. But the loss of so many ancient trees, some of which had been standing for thousands of years, means that things will never be the same again.

“I hope to have a long life, but realistically, in the next 40 years it may not look like it did the previous 40 years. A lot of trees have been burned. So we hope the trees will come back, but in some cases will look quite different, “said Kerbavaz.

Giant redwoods burned
Burning trees smolder in the Alder Creek Grove of the Giant Sequoia National Monument in Springville, California, on October 28, 2020. The castle fire burned portions of approximately 20 giant redwood groves on the western slopes of the Sierra, El only place on the planet grow naturally.

Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Redwoods have many of the hardy qualities of redwoods, but unlike redwoods, they cannot easily sprout again. That, combined with the fact that they live much further inland, away from the humid marine layer of the Pacific Ocean, makes them even more vulnerable to wildfires.

Park Williams is a Columbia University scientist and an expert on the connection between fire and climate change. Through his research, he has observed an unprecedented difference in climate and its impact on forests. At a meeting in New York City in mid-January, I asked Park what his research had revealed.

Jeff Berardelli: It seems to be happening to Joshua trees, redwoods, and redwoods. And those are all different microclimates. So what is going on?

Park Williams: Well, a lot is happening, but the only thing all the forests of the western United States are experiencing is warming. And so, as we warm the atmosphere, these forests are more likely to burn.

Jeff Berardelli: These fires can burn higher up in these trees, causing these trees to die where they would not have died years ago. It’s fine?

Park Williams: We know that fires were very common in these forests during the last millennia. These trees are designed to be able to tolerate fire, but can only tolerate fire if these fires are not giant catastrophic events. These giant fires with flames hundreds of feet high managed to kill many hundreds of these ancient majestic trees.

As gigantic as these fires are, Williams says this may be just the beginning. As the region continues to warm, wildfires will worsen at an accelerating rate.

“The really important connection between heat and fire is that it is actually exponential. And that means that for every degree of warming that you have in California, the number of additional wildfires you get increases more than the previous degree of warming. “

All the scientists interviewed for this story agree that if we do not stop warming the planet, these majestic trees will face a losing battle.

“We fear that some thresholds will be crossed. So some of the species, some of the things that live here, will no longer be able to sustain themselves,” Kerbavaz said.


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