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Global warming accelerates drought-induced forest death

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Published on Jul 9, 2013

Many southwestern forests in the United States will disappear or be heavily altered by 2050, according to a series of joint Los Alamos National Laboratory-University of New Mexico studies. Nathan McDowell, a Los Alamos plant physiologist, and William Pockman, a UNM biology professor, explain that their research, and more from scientists around the world, is forecasting that by 2100 most conifer forests should be heavily disturbed, if not gone, as air temperatures rise in combination with drought. "Everybody knows trees die when there's a drought, if there's bark beetles or fire, yet nobody in the world can predict it with much accuracy." McDowell said. "What's really changed is that the temperature is going up," thus the researchers are imposing artificial drought conditions on segments of wild forest in the Southwest and pushing forests to their limit to discover the exact processes of mortality and survival. The study is centered on drought experiments in woodlands at both Los Alamos and the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. Both sites are testing hypotheses about how forests die on mature, wild trees, rather than seedlings in a greenhouse, through the ecosystem-scale removal of 50 percent of yearly precipitation through large water-diversion trough systems.

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