This story originally appeared in The guard and is part of climate desk Cooperation.
Scientists have discovered a record number of dead fir trees in Oregon, an ominous sign of how drought and the climate crisis are ravaging the American West.
A recent aerial photograph found that more than a million hectares of forest contain trees that have succumbed to stressors exacerbated by a multi-year drought. Images released by the US Forest Service show Oregon’s lush green expanses dotted with menacing red streaks.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Daniel DePinte, aerial survey program manager for the Forest Service, who oversaw the agency’s Pacific Northwest region aerial survey, noting that this year saw the area’s highest rate of fir deaths in history . These evergreen conifers are less able to survive drought than other more vigorous trees that dot the landscapes.
Between June and October, he and his colleagues used airplanes to scan the slopes several times and recorded the devastation on digital maps. During this time it became clear that this year would be unlike anything he had seen before. The data, first reported by nonprofit environmental journalism organization Columbia Insight, is still being finalized, but dead trees have been discovered in areas on 1.1 million acres of Oregon forest. The scientists have taken it upon themselves to call it “firmageddon”.
“The size of this is enormous,” DePinte said. “A lot of people out there think climate change is just impacting the ice caps or some low-lying island out there, but it’s actually impacting 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 world – that doesn’t bode well at all.”
A prolonged drought coupled with recent extreme heat has meant vulnerable trees like firs are struggling to adapt. As the cascading impacts of the climate crisis unfold, ecosystems are expected to shift. The loss of these trees is a sign that the forests may already be beginning to change.
“It’s going to be a different forest, with a different feel, and it’s going to happen in the landscape as nature chooses,” DePinte said. “Nature says there just isn’t enough to support the firs and they will disappear from these areas over time.”
Scientists were expecting signs of stress in the forests, but the sudden increase in mortality was alarming. Prior to this year, the largest area in which dead trees were recorded in Oregon was in 1952, when dieback was detected on approximately 550,000 acres.
“It’s not surprising that this is happening, but to see such a peak within a year — that’s concerning,” said Christine Buhl, forest entomologist at the Oregon Department of Forestry. The underlying conditions that caused the surge—record high temperatures and record low rainfall—had an amplifying effect on the forest due to timing, duration, and frequency.
“Hot drought is a double whammy for a tree,” she said, explaining that the roots of drought-stressed trees die, making it difficult for them to recover even when water is available. Prolonged moisture deprivation, particularly during growing seasons when there has again been plentiful rainfall, also damages a tree’s vascular tissues, which are used by the tree to draw in water.