This Christmas, it’s “Firmageddon” as climate change hits Oregon

This story originally appeared in Guardian and is part of Climate desk cooperation.

Scientists have discovered a record number of dead spruce trees in Oregon, an ominous sign of how the drought and climate crisis are ravaging the American West.

A recent aerial survey found that more than one million hectares of forest contain trees that have succumbed to stressors exacerbated by a multi-year drought. Photos released by the US Forest Service show Oregon’s lush green expanses with ominous red areas.

“It’s amazing,” said Daniel DePinte, a Forest Service aerial survey program manager who led the agency’s aerial survey of the Pacific Northwest region, noting that this year saw the highest spruce mortality in that area on record. These evergreen conifers are less able to survive in drought conditions than other heartier trees in the landscape.

He and his colleagues scanned the slopes from aircraft several times between June and October, detailing the destruction on digital maps. During that time it became clear that this year would be unlike anything he had seen before. The data, first reported by the environmental journalism organization Columbia Insight, is still being finalized, but dead trees were discovered in areas across 1.1 million acres of Oregon forest. The researchers have taken to christening it “firmageddon.”

“The magnitude of this is huge,” DePinte said. “A lot of people out there think that climate change is just affecting the ice caps or a low-level island out there, but it’s actually affecting us right here in our backyard,” he said. “If this drought continues as climate change continues, and we continue to ignore what nature is showing us around the globe – it does not bode well at all.”

An ongoing drought, combined with recent extreme heat, has left vulnerable trees such as firs struggling to adapt. As the pervasive effects of the climate crisis unfold, ecosystems are expected to change. The loss of these trees is a sign that the forests are already beginning to change.

“It will be a different forest with a different feel, and it will happen across the landscape as nature dictates,” DePinte said. “Nature says there just isn’t enough to support the firs, and over time they will be eliminated from these areas.”

Scientists had expected to see signs of stress in the forests, but the sudden increase in mortality was alarming. Prior to this year, the largest area of ​​dead trees recorded was in Oregon in 1952, when dead trees were discovered over approximately 550,000 acres.

“This is not surprising that this is happening, but to see such a spike in a year — it’s concerning,” said Christine Buhl, a forest entomologist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. The underlying conditions that caused the peak—record high temperatures and record low precipitation—had a compounding effect on the forest due to timing, duration, and frequency.

“Heat drought is a double shock to a tree,” she said, explaining that the roots of drought-stressed trees die back, making it harder for them to recover even when water is available. Prolonged lack of moisture, especially during growing seasons when rainfall was again abundant, also damages a tree’s vascular tissue, which is used by the tree to draw in water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *