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California Drought: Giant Sequoias Threatened By Water Shortages and Wildfires

Sep 29, 2015 11:50 AM EDT
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Giant Sequoias, native to California's Sierra Nevada, are some of the largest and oldest living things on earth. Some are over 3,000 years old and are nearly 300 feet tall. These large trees can suck up approximately of 800 gallons of water a day, noted Koren Nydick, a National Park Service ecologist and part of the research team focused on the treasured trees. But recently, researchers have witness an increased amount of brown dead patches scatter throughout this historic forest, and they believe the record-long, widespread California drought is to blame. 

In an attempt to better manage these forests and control loss, scientists analyzed trees that seem most vulnerable, collecting samples from both healthy and decaying trees. They examined these trees using field surveys and overhead images taken from a plane operated by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory. In combining the data, researchers hope to identify patterns of drought stress that could be used to prevent potential die-off. 

One remedy for water-related stress would be to thin certain groves through prescribed burns, which would reduce competition for groundwater and allow more sunlight to reach the surviving trees, researchers noted

While there are many trees that are stressed in a way that has never before been reported, Nydick added that "the good news is that there are lots of trees that still seem healthy."

Although these giant trees have evolved to resist fire measures are still being taken to prevent forest fires from spreading through these historic forests. This summer, when a wildfire threatened to sweep through a grove home to the General Grant tree (one of the tallest Giant Sequoias), firefighters built fire lines and installed sprinklers to protect it. 

"They're beautiful, majestic trees," Nydick said. "People come from all over the world to see the Giant Sequoias." 

"If there's some impacts from drought or climate change on the trees, we need to understand that," Anthony Ambrose, a tree biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, said. Ambrose led the research project alongside Nydick. 

"We have very little understanding of how severe of a drought it takes to kill a giant sequoia tree," Ambrose added.

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-Follow Samantha on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13

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