Sunday, August 31, 2014

New Mexico’s forests are warming and transforming

The sun illuminates patches of green on brown and black hillsides around Highway 152 near Emory Pass in the Gila National Forest. Gambel oak and other shrubs whose roots survived a lightning-sparked wildfire in 2013 sprout on many slopes once dominated by ponderosa pines. Black, mangled masses of wood and dead barley plants loom over the new growth, which also includes aspens, grass and wildflowers. The barley grew last fall from seeds the U.S. Forest Service dropped to minimize erosion after the Silver Fire. Pines survived in many areas within the 139,000-acre burn scar. But in other places, the trees were incinerated – and in the most heavily torched areas, new pines aren’t sprouting. Though New Mexico hasn’t seen a similarly large fire this year due in part to recent rains that have pushed parts of the state out of drought, such blazes have become commonplace here. With so many coniferous trees dying – including ponderosa pines and the official state tree, the piñon –forests in Southern New Mexico, Northern New Mexico and beyond are transforming into new ecosystems people living today haven’t seen before. Credit human-caused overgrowth in our forests, along with drought and the planet’s warming climate, for the shift. In the desert Southwest, an immense amount of tinder sits on top of a drier landscape in a climate that’s warmer than at any time in the past 1,000 years, scientists believe. “We can’t stop the fires. We can’t stop the forests from thinning themselves out, because there’s just not enough water to support this biomass,” says Craig Allen. Since the 1980s, the U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist has studied the history of landscapes in the Southwest and how climate change is affecting them. It’s possible that, in the future, more mountain ranges across the Southwest will look like America’s newest national monument, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument in Doña Ana County, Allen says. Some ponderosa pines and piñon grow in the Organs, particularly around water sources. But more drought-tolerant shrubs and grasses cover much of the Organs and other peaks in the national monument around Las Cruces, which by road is about 95 miles southeast of Emory Pass. It’s not a question of if New Mexico will lose coniferous forests. Up to 18 percent of the Southwest’s forests were lost to wildfire and bark beetle outbreaks – both issues related to the warming climate – between 1984 and 2006, according to a 2010 study Allen helped author. The question is how many coniferous trees New Mexico is going to lose...more

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent article on the ecological changes in our forests in the Southwest. The public including some of our blabbermouth and unscientific politicians should read this important article.