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59,000 trees can't be wrong

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Michelle Nijhuis | Jan 22, 2009 12:05 PM

Westerners can see that there's trouble in the woods -- these days, it seems like there's a beetle-killed lodgepole stand around every corner -- but here's some especially sobering evidence of forest die-offs, just published in the journal Science. A long-term study of almost 59,000 trees in plots throughout the region shows that tree deaths in old-growth forests have more than doubled in the past three decades -- and that young trees aren't filling in all the gaps. The likely causes, say top forest researchers, are familiar culprits: warming temperatures and drought.

There are lots of implications here for forest ecology -- study authors speculate that the deaths could kick off a cascade of effects on plant and animal species. And the study offers yet another warning to people living in or near the increasingly fire-prone woods (a demographic that includes, er, me -- see here). It's worth noting that the data analyzed in this paper date back to 1955 -- ecologists looking for big-picture trends have to cultivate plenty of patience.

HCN's story Unnatural Preservation talks about some of the management dilemmas raised by such trends, and includes some interesting perspective on Sequoia National Park from one of this study's authors, USGS researcher Nate Stephenson.

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