October 4th, 2012 by

When I think of the Southwest, I picture swirling sand, cacti and heat radiating off of pavement. And while it’s true that the Southwest has its fair share of arid deserts, it also is home to forests — for now.

A pinyon pine on the lower slopes of Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park

A pinyon pine on the lower slopes of Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Peter Nijenhuis/Flickr

In a study released last week in Nature Climate Change, scientists reveal that the Southwest could be headed toward the worst megadrought scenario since A.D. 1000, which will lead to massive forest decline. The research developed a forest drought-stress index (FDSI) to study tree ring data from 1000-2007 to decipher the influence of specific climate parameters on forest decline. Through their modeling, scientists discovered that the drought experienced by the Southwest in the early 2000s was the most severe drought event since a megadrought in the 1500s, and they caution that “the recent forest response to drought may serve as a harbinger of how drought-sensitive forests globally may respond to warming” — especially considering that the drought situation is only going to get worse as the 21st century continues.

This study is just the latest in mounting evidence that the Southwest’s forests are headed toward tough times, which is why one scientist is baking trees to try determine the scope of the damage that may lay ahead, as reported by E&E News.

At a research station in New Mexico, Nathan McDowell is putting juniper, pinyon pine and other plant species into contained chambers, where he then drives the temperature up and cuts precipitation — mirroring what scientists expect the Southwest’s climate to be in the middle of the 21st century. As predicted, the trees succumb to these extreme conditions, but McDowell is hoping that by understanding how stressors like water loss, carbon starvation and other factors interact to overwhelm plants and trees, scientists can better predict how they will react on a wider scale to climate change.

With all of this different research and focus on impending hardships ahead for southwestern forests, let’s hope that the Southwest’s land managers are able to use this data and foreknowledge to find ways to help and protect these vulnerable forests.