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Study Finds Heat Takes Toll On Mountain Trees In West

Jon Flobrant/Unsplash

Another  heatwavegripped much of the country last week, including areas in  Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. And research shows that's bad news for trees in high-elevation forests.

studypublished earlier this year in the Journal of Ecology found that even without bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire, trees in Colorado's subalpine forests are dying at increasing rates from extreme summer conditions.

Researchers found that more than 70 percent of tree deaths were due to heat and drought. Bark beetles accounted for 23 percent of tree deaths, and 5 percent were due to wind damage.

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The study focused on 13 areas of subalpine forest over a 37-year period.

Lead author Robbie Andrus said warmer and drier conditions draw more moisture out of trees and soil.

"Their physiological functions often decline or fail, and they can die as a result of that," said Andrus, who completed the research while at CU Boulder.

The study also found that it's the older and larger trees that are dying more rapidly. Andrus said, those trees store the most carbon, which could eventually lead subalpine forests to "function less as a carbon sink than they currently do."

Andrus said it's an early warning about climate change. "What we're sort of showing is this alarm bell going off, like, 'Hey, we need to be aware that things might be changing, or that things are changing.'"

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Along with higher tree mortality, the study found that hotter and drier conditions are making it difficult for new trees to grow in high-elevation forests in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Nevada Public Radio and KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit  Boise State Public Radio News.