Good night, sweet trees

Sudden Aspen Decline is like a Shakespearean tragedy

  • Dead aspen stand near Fairplay, Colorado and Highway 285.

    William R. L. Anderegg
  • Reasearchrer, Alex Nees begins his ascent of an aspen tree to take canopy measurements.

    William R. L. Anderegg
  • Alex Nees in the canopy measuring aspen photosynthesis.

    William R. L. Anderegg
  • Trees afflicted by Sudden Aspen Decline in the San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

    William R. L. Anderegg

Page 2

August 10, 2009
The hot Colorado sun baked the dead aspen forest. There were none of the cotton-candy cumulus clouds that normally bring afternoon monsoons. My T-shirt grew damp and clung to my body. I leaned over and plunged the shovel into the soil again and again, turning over sections of rich black dirt. Pausing to sift through the drying clods, I sighed in frustration and kept on digging.

I was looking for young aspens and, more importantly, for the root networks in the soil that support them. When I finally found a root, I held it up to the sun. Like almost all of the others I'd found, it was brown, rotten and already dead. The empty canopy above me signaled the death of a stand of trees, but the surprising lack of re-growth and living root network in afflicted forests spelled an even darker future for whole forests of aspens. Turning the dead root over in my fingers, I pondered the mysteries that still shroud this die-off. Aspen root networks are thought to stay alive in the soil for hundreds or even thousands of years and have never before been observed dying en masse. The root death seems to accompany the canopy death across nearly a fifth of Colorado's aspen forests. It brought to mind what my mother said, on seeing the pollution from two nearby coal power plants that sometimes covers our corner of Colorado: We live in interesting times.

August 20, 2009
Returning to my hometown high school was like going back to my childhood camping spot: a mix of warmth and apprehension. I had failed to find budding aspens in the forest, but here I hoped to engage budding minds about the local forests, science and going to college. The biology classroom was packed with students and teachers, eagerly awaiting a presentation by my brother and me.

After my brother explained to the students why they should attend college and study science, I put up our most stunning pictures of aspen research. Examining the roots may be dirty, sweaty work, but studying the canopy can be spectacular. In one video, I ascend an aspen swaying wildly in the wind of an oncoming storm to recover a piece of scientific equipment that resembles a robot from The Matrix. After I told the story of aspen decline, explained the science of climate change, and detailed how severely it is expected to impact the West, we made an offer: Interested students could join our research crew the following summer. Hands went up, even among the teachers. This group would add to the 14 middle school and high school students from northern New Mexico who had already pledged to join us. Looking out over the classroom, I felt a brief surge of an emotion that had been absent all summer -- hope.

August 31, 2009
Flecks of yellow speckled the still-living aspen canopy in front of our final field research camp as the sun set. I took my final pictures and conducted my last measurements of the season, then sat down on the drying grass to read a few more passages of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which had been my summer reading.

I had come to realize that the story of the aspens is a Shakespearean tragedy still unfolding. The fate of the protagonist has not yet been written in stone, the trees are buffeted by forces beyond their control, and a combination of their own traits and the corruption of society will bring about their downfall. Early projections indicate that between 50 to 90 percent of aspen forests may disappear by the end of the century.

The most heartbreaking part of a Shakespearean tragedy is the fact that we know what's coming. Ultimately, this will be the story of climate change. Whether it's the loss of the world's coral reefs, drought-induced crop failure, or the death of entire forests, the story of the aspens will not be unique. Perhaps we can learn from this tree, a hallmark of our Western landscape, before it's too late.

In the still evening air filled with the soft calls of swallows and thrushes, I walked away from camp and into the aspen grove across the meadow. I ran my fingers across the dusty white bark and looked up at the trembling kaleidoscope above me. The wind whispered in the leaves and the crickets whirred. Like Horatio, I wanted to do something –– to warn Hamlet, to stave off the end of the tragedy. But I was the only one in the grove who knew the trees' time was running out, and how close we were coming to the end of the play.

William Anderegg grew up hiking, fishing and hunting throughout southwestern Colorado. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, studying aspen decline and the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, and in his free time he writes fantasy novels.

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