Tree Death Rates Double In Old-Growth Forests

Regional warming is likely to blame for a steady increase in tree death rates in old-growth forests of the western United States, according to 2009 study in Science.

The study, led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), found that the increase in dying trees has been pervasive. Tree death rates have increased across a wide variety of forest types, at all elevations, in trees of all sizes and in pines, firs, hemlocks and other kinds of trees. Researchers concluded that the most probable cause is regional warming due to global climate change.

Regardless of the cause, however, the study’s results foreshadow dire consequences for the forests, and the wildlife that calls them home. Additionally, increasing tree mortality rates mean that western forests could become net sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further speeding up the pace of global warming.

“The same way that in any group of people a small number will die each year, in any forest a small number of trees die each year,” said van Mantgem. “But our long-term monitoring shows that tree mortality has been climbing, while the establishment of replacement trees has not.”

“Average temperature in the West rose by more than 1° F over the last few decades,” van Mantgem continued.  “While this may not sound like much, it has been enough to reduce winter snowpack, cause earlier snowmelt, and lengthen the summer drought.”

Longer, drier summers mean trees become stressed and unhealthy. Drought conditions also provide favorable conditions for insects and diseases. Some recent outbreaks of tree-killing bark beetles in the West have already been linked to warming temperatures.

In some cases, increasing tree deaths could indicate forests vulnerable to sudden, extensive die-back, similar to forest die-back seen over the last few years in parts of the southwestern states, Colorado, and British Columbia.  “That may be our biggest concern,” said Nate Stephenson of the USGS. “Is the trend we’re seeing a prelude to bigger, more abrupt changes to our forests?”

What do you think?

Related Reading:

Scientists Predict Extreme Heat Will Be The Norm In 20 Years

Texas Drought May Have Killed 500 Million Trees

Modern Day Johnny Appleseed Has Planted 13,849 Trees


Photo credit:John E. Kraminski

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Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

Thanks for the article - even though it is a sad one!!!

Nimue Pendragon
Nimue Pendragon3 years ago

What a damn shame!

Sandi C.
Sandi C.3 years ago


Heather M.
Heather Marv3 years ago

I discovered a lot of trees had died on my walk down a local bike track. Tall trees, possibly a type of pine and a number of years old. I wondered too what had killed them. I thought of the approximately thirteen years of drought and then the flood of rains we had had in Australia. I thought they need to do studies to find which trees are more adaptable to harsh climates so that they can be replaced with trees that don't suddenly die like this, in large numbers. A mile or so down the bike track none of the trees were damaged at all though I am pretty sure they weren't the same trees. How precious trees are for removing carbon dioxide and they are fantastic to walk under on hot days, you can breathe in the clean oxygen and immediately feel the drop in the air temperature. They are homes for the birds, possums, insects and other animals. They are so necessary and so beautiful too.

Andrea A.
Andrea A.3 years ago

Sorry. Thank for sharing.

Sharon O'malley
Sharon O'malley3 years ago


Jordan W.
Jordan W.3 years ago

I guess they forgot about the chinese drywall nightmare...which was made from these coal burning power plants by products.

antonia maestre
antonia maestre3 years ago

What are we doing?

KS Goh
KS Goh3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Myron Scott
Myron Scott3 years ago

What sarcasm, David O.? My comment was sincere and at least intended to be empirically grounded. Simple disagreement, or maybe just offering of a different perspective, is not sarcasm.