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Climate Change in Yosemite

We’ll soon find out whether, as expected, 2016 will become the third hottest-year-on-record in a row and the sixteenth of the seventeen hottest years on record this century.

One thing we already know? Six years of drought and record heat have proven particularly deadly for California forests, claiming an unprecedented 62 million trees in 2016 alone (double the 2015 record) and bringing to over 102 million the total number of trees that have died since 2010, the year the six-year drought began. And more trees will soon follow. As the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicated in a recent press release, “millions of additional trees are weakened and expected to die in the coming months and years.”

Drought weakened the trees and, their defenses compromised, the trees could not fight off a super-abundance of mountain pine beetles. Though numerous indigenous species of bark beetles live throughout western North America, winter temperatures normally check their growth, limiting the damage they can inflict on the trees they breed in and consume. But mountain pine beetles have been evolving to survive colder temperatures and warmer winters over the past decades have also allowed the beetles to extend their ranges and breeding seasons. As a result, “Mountain pine beetle populations have exploded over the past decade, and these insects have infected and killed thousands of acres of western pine forests.”

Nor are the ecological damages restricted to the trees. With so many dead trees both on the ground and still standing, wind and soil erosion will likely cause further environmental damage, wildlife will lose both food sources and nesting habitat, and aridity may increase further due to increased run off.

What’s more, human populations will face another year of potentially catastrophic wildfires. In 2015, “California had a record setting wildfire season, with the Blue Cut fire alone scorching over 30,000 acres and triggering the evacuation of 80,000 people. In the southeastern United States wildfires have burned more than 120,000 acres this fall. The southeast region of the Forest Service is operating at the highest preparedness level, PL 5, reflecting the high level of physical resources and funding devoted to the region. Extreme drought conditions persist, and many areas have not seen rain for as many as 95 days.”

But we should also note another possible ramification from the loss of 102 million trees in California and the hundreds of millions of additional dead or dying trees throughout western North America.

Wildfires are not the only issue we have to consider: Because forests absorb a significant amount of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, could the loss of so many millions of trees in California (just this year) and the impending loss of hundreds of millions of additional dead or dying trees throughout western North America cause a cascading climate change effect in western states and provinces: accelerating the rate of temperature and aridity increases, escalating habitat loss, and amplifying localized wildlife eradications?

In his article about this “dangerous and unprecedented” ecological event, SF Gate journalist Michael Bodley mentions that “there are about 21 million acres of trees spread across California’s 18 national forests, and the latest figures show 7.7 million of them — more than one-third — are dead.”

If it’s taken just six years to destroy 102 million trees, how long will it take for an ever-more-hostile-environment to claim the remaining trees as well? Not just in California. But through all of western North America.

You’ll find more information about the causes and consequences of California’s 2016 loss of 102 million trees in the following articles:

• 2016 will be the hottest year on record, UN says
• New Aerial Survey Identifies More Than 100 Million Dead Trees in California
• Bark Beetle [Wikipedia]
• When trees die, water slows
• Getting at the root of mountain pine beetle’s rapid habitat expansion
• ‘Unprecedented’: More than 100 million trees dead in California
• California Today: More Than 100 Million Trees Are Dead. What Now?
• More than 100 Million Dead Trees in California from Drought
• More than 100 Million Dead Trees in California
• California’s Drought Has Killed More Than 100 Million Trees in Six Years, U.S. Forest Service Says
• More than 100 million dead trees in California from drought
• Beetle-infested pine trees contribute more to air pollution and haze in forests
• Dying trees in Southwest set stage for erosion, water loss in Colorado River
• California drought kills 102 million trees. Now what?
• This State’s 102M Dead Trees ‘Should Be Concerning for Everyone’
• 100 Million Trees Are Dead Thanks to California’s Drought
• Officials: Drought kills 102 million trees in California
• 102 million dead California trees ‘unprecedented in our modern history,’ officials say
• Senator Dianne Feinstein Raises Alarm on 100 Million Dead Trees in California