Climate Change Fuels Northwest Tree Die-back

A close up of a grayish-brown dried up leaf against a brown background for article on tree die-backI’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest since 2006. I moved here in part because of the overall milder weather compared to the Midwest where I grew up. And yet since then I’ve watched the average temperatures get hotter, the hot periods get longer, and the rainy season shorten at both ends like the edges of a dried leaf curling up in drought. This has led to an increase in tree die-back.

There’s no more iconic natural symbol of this region than a forest. Images of vast conifer woods are used to attract tourists here, and tree iconography graces company logos, license plates, and the flag of our bioregion. The timber industry still holds immense amounts of power and land here, but conservation groups are hard at work preserving as much non-plantation forest as possible, especially the last few scraps of old growth.

It is alarming, then, to see that some of the first widely visible casualties of climate change are trees. Last year Oregon saw the biggest die-off of fir trees–true firs in the genus Abies, not the Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. My favorite species of tree, the western red cedar (Thuja plicata) is also declining at a frightening rate. And for the last few years, I’ve watched numerous Sitka spruce trees (Picea sitchensis) struggle and ultimately die; mature trees are surprisingly susceptible. It’s not just the conifers that are in trouble, though; one of the region’s largest deciduous trees, the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophylla) has also been hit hard by hotter, drier summers.

Tree Die-back Isn’t Alone

A stand of dead Sitka spruce trees looks like pale skeletons against a dark background for article on tree die-back
Richard Webb, CCA-SA-2.0

It’s a one-two punch, because drought-stressed trees are more susceptible to diseases and parasites. The Sitka spruce are plagued by spruce aphids, for example, but the other species also have trouble fighting off their attackers. Couple that with warmer winters that may not kill off as many invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria as usual, and infestations often roar back even bigger once spring returns. If the trees were healthy and well-hydrated their immune systems might have a better chance of fending off pathogens, but drought weakens them too much.

Other denizens of the forest are struggling, too. Amphibians here and elsewhere aren’t just going to be seeing more of their habitat dry up, but they’re also feeling more pressure from fungal infections and other pathogens. And last year the mycelium of many fungi dried out so badly in the heat that we had a terrible fall mushroom season; fungi need a certain level of hydration to be able to move the nutrients required to build the mushrooms.

I wish I could tell you there were sure fixes for tree die-back and other environmental ills. Unfortunately, even a basic understanding of climate change makes it clear that this is a massive, multi-faceted problem compounded by other environmental destruction. There are plenty of people trying to pick this massive Gordian knot apart, but it’s going to take time, and for those of us alive right now climate change mitigation is more likely than total reversal.

Finding Your Thread

A park ranger at Joshua Tree waters a new planting for article on tree die-backBut–sometimes the best thing one single person can do is tug at an individual thread. And sometimes that can make a difference on a local, personal level. For example, arborists suggest that if you have a small number of vulnerable trees in your yard, you may be able to help them get through the drought with supplemental watering. Planting more native trees is still a valid way to help, too! Your young seedlings and saplings may also need some extra water each summer, but even if only some of them survive further tree die-back that’s still more trees than there were before. Just make sure you’re planting them in appropriate ecosystems!

Since I mentioned them earlier, amphibians and other wildlife can benefit from the preservation and restoration of their habitat, even small patches of wetlands and other cool, damp places. If you’re feeling ambitious and have the opportunity, building a small pond and surrounding it with native plants may offer frogs and salamanders a safe place to spawn and rest.

A group of Girl Scouts helping to put in native plants on a bare patch of ground at a wildlife refuge for article on tree die-backEven if you don’t have a yard or can’t take on a project at home, see if any local municipal, county, or nonprofit organizations need volunteers for habitat restoration projects in your area. Biodiversity centered on native species is one of the best ways to help an ecosystem weather harsh changes; even if one species is struggling, another native species in the ecosystem may be able to take up some of the slack and still support the overall web of interrelationships. Removing invasive species is quite possibly one of the best ways to prepare an ecosystem for the onslaught of climate change. And not every member of a given species is going to drop dead instantly; a healthy population of a species can handle some mortality and still reproduce enough to keep going. Habitat restoration is key to both bolstering biodiversity and increasing population numbers of the species themselves. That’s going to help the trees, the fungi, the amphibians, and everyone else, too.

To Rest and Recharge

Finally, it’s important to keep taking care of yourself. You can’t be a good steward to the nature around you if you’re so tired and depressed that you can barely get out of bed. The stress of climate change, sociopolitical turmoil, and interpersonal issues, among other things, is enough to have knocked a lot of people down; even I have days where my optimism gets tarnished and worn. So please don’t feel bad if you just can’t muster the time, energy, or other resources to “go save the world.” Do your best to get that self-care going, even if it’s just the bare bones, and no need to feel guilty, either.

A fawn colored pug sits on a bed wrapped in a cozy brown blanket for article on tree die-backOne thing I find helps a lot when I’m feeling down about, well, everything is to take Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers. The news is full of negativity because that’s what gets clicks. But I try to focus on ways people are trying to improve things. Sometimes amid the scary headlines I do find stories of scientific breakthroughs that can help curb climate change symptoms, or other environmental success stories. I consider that in spite of the unwieldiness of large, governmental bodies, there are people within federal, state, and other public entities who are doing their best to use the resources available to them to do some good in the world. I also reconnect with individual people I know who are trying to make the world a better place, even in very small ways, and I remember that quite often the changes that are helping are too quiet and unobtrusive to make it into the media. Or, as Tolkien said via Gandalf the Grey: “I have found that it is the small everyday deed of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

Pale green clusters of Sitka spruce needles against a black background for article on tree die-backAnd I walk outside, where there are still many Sitka spruce in view. A few of them still show damaged branches from previous heat waves, but they persist in spite of that. In the weeks to come, the tips of their branches will start growing bright green new growth for the year. I can’t promise them that I can save every single one in the next tree die-back, but it reaffirms for me that I still have many reasons to keep fighting.

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2 thoughts on “Climate Change Fuels Northwest Tree Die-back

  1. John Emery Davis says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    Thanks for your post. So traumatic to watch old trees die and feel so powerless. In Everett’s Forest Park our die-offs are still primarily conifer root rot but a few redcedars are failing where they’re on high ground next to hardscape. I think they’ll continue to do OK in the low wet areas. But like you say, it’s the longer, hotter, drier dry seasons that are the biggest problem. On our higher ground the Doug Firs are still doing OK. In terms of planting new trees I’ve been pinning my hopes on Grand Fir planted in aging deciduous forests for it’s somewhat greater drought and shade tolerance.
    Keep up the good work!

    1. Rebecca Lexa says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, John! It really is heartbreaking to see this happening. It’s one thing to intellectually understand that climate change has been causing upheaval for decades, but another thing entirely when it hits close to home in a very undeniable way. I hope your firs ends up thriving in spite of everything; I know there’s still a lot of debate about what to plant and where, since so many species are migrating toward the poles and/or higher in elevation. So much wait and see (something I am personally very bad at!)

      Also, on a related note, thank you for your blog. My quarterly chapbook that’s coming out later this week is on the (very) basics of habitat restoration, and it’s one of the resources for further reading I recommended to readers. Lots of material that is worth considering both within and beyond the PNW.

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