New laser-imaging tools from Carnegie Institution for Science's Airborne Observatory (CAO) combined with satellite data reveal the devastating impacts of California's ongoing drought. Since 2011, nearly 888 million trees have experienced drought-related stress, of which 58 million have reached dangerous water loss thresholds, researchers say. This puts California's iconic massive trees at risk of dying, catching fire, or being infested with bark beetles.

"California relies on its forests for water provisioning and carbon storage, as well as timber products, tourism, and recreation, so they are tremendously important ecologically, economically, and culturally," Carnegie's Greg Asner explained in a news release. "The drought put the forests in tremendous peril, a situation that may cause long-term changes in ecosystems that could impact animal habitats and biodiversity."

The team's advanced tools allowed them to measure the full impact of the drought on California's forests and predict which trees are at the greatest death and fire risk. Even with increased precipitation due to El Nino, researchers estimate that if drought conditions reoccur in the near future, the vulnerable forests would experience catastrophic changes. (Scroll to read more...)

"The Carnegie Airborne Observatory's research provides invaluable insight into the severity of drought impacts in California's iconic forests. It will be important to bring their cutting-edge data and expertise to bear as the state seeks to address the effects of this epidemic of dying trees and aid in the recovery of our forests," Ashley Conrad-Saydah, deputy secretary for climate policy at the California Environmental Protection Agency, said in Carnegie's release.

Data collected from CAO flight operations also helped motivate California's Gov. Jerry Brown in declaring a state of emergency back in October.

"Our high-resolution mapping approach identifies vulnerable trees and changing landscapes," Asner added. "Continued airborne and satellite monitoring will enable actions on the ground to mitigate a cascade of negative impacts from forest losses due to drought, as well as aid in monitoring forest recovery if and when the drought subsides."

Their study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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