The US Forest Service just released a report this week saying that 27 million trees died in California over the past year—that’s roughly 27 times the yearly average. This is a devastating figure, especially if viewed from above in aerial images.
In a typical year, around a million trees die throughout California. However, due to a multi-year drought these numbers have been increasing exponentially.
It’s not just a one-year blip either. According to state officials California has lost some 129 million trees since 2010.
Drought across the west has turned entire hillsides yellow, brown and orange.
Although more rain and snow fell in parts of the Sierra Nevada than in the previous four years combined, it was too late for many trees.
“On the one hand, the trees have been weakened and are suffering a lot of stress and on the other hand, these same trees are being attacked by large populations of mountain pine beetles,” said Adrian Das, from the U.S. Geological Survey.
In an attempt to fend off the beetles, the trees expel a kind of resin. However, across California many trees are already weak due to a prolonged lack of water. When they try to defend themselves from beetles they actually grow even weaker.
Oddly enough, 27 million is a much lower figure compared to 2016, when at the peak of the drought, there were 62 million dead trees.
The drop in the number of dead trees could just mean there aren’t that many trees left to die, according to Stephanie Gomes from the U.S. Forest Service.
Increased firefighting over the years may have exacerbated the problem too.
Historically, many forests in the west of the country used to experience smaller fires more often than they do now. This resulted in the death of small trees and treelets in the fires and many forests with more openings.
But over the last century, firefighters put out many more fires to protect people and cities, which means that more small trees were able to survive and the forests were filled up. Now, with less water, more trees compete for the already scarce liquid.
To combat the situation, the experts of the US Forest Service know that they must identify and eliminate dead trees that may pose a security risk, such as those that grow along roads, camps, and power lines.
However, that task requires resources and budget. At this time, both are focused on putting out fires said Randy Moore, leader of the Southwest Pacific Region of the Forest Service.
In the medium term, authorities are also evaluating the option of reducing the most populated and vulnerable forests by cutting or setting controlled fires so that the remaining trees do not have as much competition for water.