Quantcast

These Trees Survived California’s Drought and That’s Giving Scientists Hope for Climate Change

Science
Forest biologist Patricia Maloney is raising 10,000 sugar pine seedlings descended from trees that survived California's historic drought. Lauren Sommer / KQED

By Lauren Sommer

When California's historic five-year drought finally relented a few years ago, the tally of dead trees in the Sierra Nevada was higher than almost anyone expected: 129 million. Most are still standing, the dry patches dotting the mountainsides.


But some trees did survive the test of heat and drought. Now, scientists are racing to collect them and other species around the globe in the hope that these "climate survivors" may have a natural advantage, allowing them to cope with a warming world a bit better than others in their species.

On the north shore of Lake Tahoe, Patricia Maloney, a UC Davis forest and conservation biologist, hunts for these survivors. Most people focus on the dead trees, their brown pine needles standing out against the glittering blue of the lake. But Maloney tends not to notice them.

"I look for the good," she said. "Like in people, you look for the good, not the bad. I do the same in forest systems."

Maloney studies sugar pines, a tree John Muir once called the "king" of conifers. "They have these huge, beautiful cones," Maloney said. "They're stunning trees."

The sugar pines on these slopes endured some of the worst water stress in the region. Winter snowpack melts earliest on south-facing slopes, leaving the trees with little soil moisture over the summer. That opens the door for the trees' tiny nemesis, which would deal the fatal blow.

"Here you have some really good mountain pine beetle galleries," Maloney said, as she peeled the bark off a dead sugar pine to show winding channels eaten into the wood. "Like little beetle highways."

Pine beetle outbreaks are a normal occurrence in the Sierra. As the beetles try to bore into the bark, pine trees can usually fight them off by spewing a sticky, gummy resin, entrapping the insects. But trees need water to make resin.

"The tank ran dry, and they weren't able to mobilize any sort of resin," Maloney said.

But next to this dead tree, Maloney points to one towering above, with healthy green pine needles. Somehow, it was able to fight the beetles off and survive the drought. As she's found more and more of these survivors, Maloney has studied them, trying to figure out what their secret is.

Mountain pine beetle larvae leave holes in sugar pine bark after emerging.

Lauren Sommer / KQED

"What we found is that the ones that were green, like this one, were more water-use efficient than their dead counterparts," she said.

In other words, the survivors had an innate ability to do more with less.

Individual members of any species can vary dramatically, something tied to genetic differences. That diversity comes in handy when environmental conditions change.

The drought, heat and beetle outbreaks in recent years put extreme pressure on sugar pines, creating a natural experiment that weeded out all but the toughest.

"I think what we're seeing is contemporary natural selection," Maloney said.

Now, she's trying to ensure their descendents survive.

Inside a greenhouse at her Tahoe City field station, Maloney showed off a sea of young green trees in their own containers. These 10,000 sugar pine seedlings grew from seeds Maloney and her team collected from 100 of the surviving sugar pines.

Over the next year, these young trees will be replanted around Lake Tahoe, both on national forest and private land. The hope is the trees, due to their genetics, will be better able to handle a warming climate, more extreme droughts and more frequent beetle outbreaks.

"These survivors matter," Maloney said.

She plans to study the genetics of these trees as they grow, research that could help in other climate-threatened forests.

Patricia Maloney next to a dead sugar pine on Lake Tahoe.

Lauren Sommer / KQED

Coral Survivors

Maloney's not alone in searching for species that can handle the warming climate.

Steve Palumbi, a biology professor at Stanford University, has been looking for coral that can handle heat.

"Evolution is a tool that we can bring to bear in helping us get through this future," he said.

Coral reefs are bleaching and dying as oceans warm, so Palumbi is growing surviving corals in the hope they can build new reefs, full of "super corals." Reefs aren't just tourist attractions, he says. They're also biodiversity hotspots that protect coastlines from flooding by absorbing wave energy.

"If it gives us another decade, if it gives us another two generations, that'll be good, we'll take it," he said. "I see these next 80 years as the time where we have to save as much as possible."

But beyond that, it gets trickier, given the rate the climate is changing.

"The question in the future is: When the environment changes and it changes really fast, can these populations keep up? How fast can they adapt? How much help will they give us in keeping those ecosystems going?"

Palumbi says, ultimately, the best solution for these species is for humans to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases.

In the meantime, scientists are trying to buy them a little more time.

This story originally appeared in KQED. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Charging EVs in Stockholm: But where does a dead battery go? Ranjithsiji / Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Driving an electric-powered vehicle (EV) rather than one reliant on fossil fuels is a key way to tackle climate change and improve air quality — but it does leave the old batteries behind as a nasty residue.

Read More
U.S. Secretary of the Treasure Steven Mnuchin arrives for a welcome dinner at the Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 22, 2020 during the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting. FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP via Getty Images

Finance ministers from the 20 largest economies agreed to add a scant mention of the climate crisis in its final communiqué in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Sunday, but they stopped short of calling it a major economic risk, as Reuters reported. It was the first time the G20 has mentioned the climate crisis in its final communiqué since Donald Trump became president in 2017.

Read More
Sponsored
Aerial view of Parque da Cachoeira, which suffered the January 2019 dam collapse, in Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil — one of the country's worst industrial accidents that left 270 people dead. Millions of tons of toxic mining waste engulfed houses, farms and waterways, devastating the mineral-rich region. DOUGLAS MAGNO / AFP / Getty Images

By Christopher Sergeant, Julian D. Olden

Scars from large mining operations are permanently etched across the landscapes of the world. The environmental damage and human health hazards that these activities create may be both severe and irreversible.

Read More
Participants of the climate demonstration Fridays for Future walk through Hamburg, Germany on Feb. 21, 2020. Axel Heimken / picture alliance via Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

U.S.-based youth climate activists on Friday drew attention to the climate protest in Hamburg, Germany, where organizers said roughly 60,000 people took part, and hoped that Americans took inspiration from their European counterparts.

Read More
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) surfacing, showing the remains of a blow and its mottled appearance near South Georgia Island in the Polar Regions. Mick Baines & Maren / Getty Images

The largest animal on Earth is proving that wildlife protections work.

Read More