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10-Year Tree-Death Period After Drought--Remedies?

Aug 24, 2015 11:12 AM EDT
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Trees can die for up to 10 years after a drought, but there's some hope.
Droughts have been found to affect trees a decade later, and steps have been outlined for saving a percentage of such trees.
(Photo : Duke University)

Trees need water. So it's easy to assume that a period of drought can greatly affect them. But did you know that droughts can cause a decade's worth of problems for these plants? 

A recent Duke University examined data back to 1993 on roughly 29,000 trees in two research forests in North Carolina, discovering that among drought-damaged trees that failed to recover, 72% were killed within a decade. The study, which outlines a time period during which forest managers can take action to possibly save trees, was recently published in Ecological Applications.

This study was led by Aaron Berdanier, a Ph.D. student in forest ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. He explains that as trees' growth is slowed during a drought, their ability to take in a sufficient amount of carbon is weakened. "If the tree can't reverse this trend, its health progressively declines and over time it slowly dies," Berdanier said in a statement.

"Averaged across species, we found that a tree's long-term mortality risk increases when its cumulative diameter growth falls below 54 percent of the growth of nearby trees of the same species," Clark said in a statement. "This gives scientists and forest managers a useful measure to monitor for." Clark also noted that as our future climate warms and droughts become more frequent in the Southeast, this is going to be a major region-wide concern.

"After a drought occurs, managers may have a couple of years to do something to prevent declines from causing a tree's death. Knowing what to do and what to look for can make a big difference," explained Berdanier in the statement. The study suggested that in order to help injured trees survive, it is best to remove competing trees near it. 

This study paves the path for people to recognize and reverse drought-induced declines of high-risk species.

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