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Research predicts climate change will cause major die-offs in southwestern forests


A new study says the picturesque evergreen forests of the southwestern U.S. could be in trouble because of climate change.

Back in 2002, a drought in the southwest killed quite a lot of evergreen trees. And since that temperatures during that drought were warmer than average, scientists wondered how those same forests would do in a warming world.  


“So if piñon pine were dying during a drought that was warmer than average, it would suggest that in the future that these trees would have a difficult time adapting to this new climate and more mortality might occur," said Sarah Rauscher, a climate ascientist at University of Delaware.



She and her colleagues found that if global temperatures continue rising at current rates, these evergreen trees might not make it to the middle of the century. And even if nations stick to the 2 degrees Celsius cap on warming they agreed to at the Paris climate talks -- southwestern evergreens will still die off in large numbers. It'll just happen later in the century.


Rauscher finds the results depressing, especially after having lived in the region.


“Seeing [those results] as a researcher wasn’t so surprising, but they’re still really disturbing to me because it’s a beautiful landscape. It makes me sad that these trees may not survive into the future," said Rauscher.


She says other factors, like increased wildfires or changes in insect populations, could speed up the demise of the forests. It's also unclear how well the trees can adapt to warming climates.

And the deterioration of the evergreen forests will likely perpetuate warming temperatures. Fewer trees mean fewer ways to suck up carbon emissions as they're released into the atmosphere and warm the planet even further.


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