How Climate Change is Accelerating the Decline of Pacific Northwest Forests

Located deep within Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the heart of a forest lies a decaying “Tree of Life.” Its once lush green foliage has become tough and brown, or in some cases, completely disappeared. Despite its altered appearance, the tree’s unmistakable reddish bark, sweeping branches, and thick, conical base confirm it as the iconic western red cedar of the Pacific Northwest.

Christine Buhl, a forest health specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, utilizes a tool known as an increment borer to extract a sample of the tree’s inner growth rings. The slimmer rings indicate a slowdown in the tree’s growth before its eventual demise, suggesting that this red cedar, like many others in Oregon and Washington, perished due to drought.

Termed as the “canary,” this dying red cedar serves as an indicator of the widespread impact of drought on less resilient tree species in the region. Climate change-induced drought has resulted in the death of numerous trees, including the red cedar – a species with a history of varied uses ranging from canoes to clothing, earning it the affectionate title of the “Tree of Life.”

Last year, Buhl and her colleagues reported that red cedars were dying, not due to a fungal or insect infestation, but as a result of climate change-induced drought. Recent studies and reports show that it’s not just red cedars; at least 15 native Pacific Northwest tree species are suffering from growth declines and die-offs, with 10 of them linked to drought and rising temperatures.

Scientists argue that these drought-induced die-offs signal the beginning of an anticipated shift in tree growing ranges due to climate change. As temperatures continue to rise, growing ranges in the Northern Hemisphere are expected to shift upslope in elevation and farther north, leaving many trees stranded in a warmer, drier world. This change is predicted to result in tree die-offs with no regrowth prospects. Researchers believe these shift-induced die-offs may already be in motion, with “Firmageddon” serving as a tangible example.

Firmageddon, a phenomenon recognized and named by forest service specialists, signals a massive die-off of five fir species in the region. The forests are evidently shifting uphill due to climate change, leading to die-offs at lower-elevation sites. The effects of climate-induced die-offs are also evident in other species, like Douglas fir, which is currently experiencing a 720-square-mile die-off, primarily in the Klamath Mountains to the south of Oregon.

While red cedars predominantly fall prey to drought, the die-offs of Douglas fir and the “Firmageddon” firs are a result of both drought-induced stress and pest infestations. This combination of environmental factors severely weakens trees, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic pests, ultimately resulting in widespread die-offs.

As the climate continues to change, the hope for the revival of these struggling tree species diminishes, underlining the urgent need for climate action.


Nathan Gilles is a science writer and journalist based in Vancouver, Washington.


Columbia Insight is an Oregon-based nonprofit news website covering environmental issues affecting the Pacific Northwest.


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