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Drought Killed Over 12 Million Trees In California's National Forests

Red trees in Angeles National Forest (Photo by JulieAndSteve via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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Over 12 million trees in California's national forests have died as a result of the devastating drought, and the number is only going to grow as the dry conditions worsen.Usually by this point of the year the forests in California will be lush and green from the rainy season, but the dry winter has left enormous swaths of forestland brown from the dried-up trees. A recent aerial survey of 8.2 million acres of national forests by rangers have found almost a million acres of dead trees. "It's pretty rough," Jeff Moore, a Forest Service biologist, told the L.A. Times. "It is cause for concern—but there is not too much to do about it."

Rangers in San Bernardino National Forest call the dead trees "red trees," and their prevalence is increasing the risk of potentially devastating wildfires as the dry season approaches. "The situation is incendiary&emdash;the national forest is stressed out," said Jet Propulsion Lab climatologist William Patzert.

In Pinnacles National Park, up north in California's Central Coast, rangers have banned campfires over a month in advance because of "very dry conditions."

The drought conditions also work two-fold by helping bark beetles infest dying trees. Without water, trees are unable to secret resin on their bark, which repels the pests. "If you have a drought, you get large numbers of trees that are susceptible," said UC Riverside entomologist Timothy Paine. A study (.pdf) co-authored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Canadian Forest Service found that bark beetles populations are mainly in check by cold winters, and unfortunately this past winter was one of the warmest on record. *shakes fist at climate change*

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In 2003, the bark beetle epidemic in California was so bad that Governor Gray Davis declared a state of emergency. But some fear this current period might be worse. "It's scary in areas—the amount of dead and dying trees I am seeing," Tom Smith of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ironically, fire suppression and forest mismanagement over the last century have made forests even denser than before, which has led to the conditions they are in now. The denser forests means more trees competing for the same resources, and the drought conditions have weakened the trees as they compete for the dwindling amount of water. Less water means more dry trees and trees succumbing to beetle infestations, meaning more fuel for large forest fires. It's a vicious cycle, man.

The last time this many trees died was the last major drought that hit the state in the late-70s, when over 14 million trees perished.