Climate Change is Killing Our Mountain Trees

fam in aspens2.jpg

Among the glories of the southwest, especially at this time of year, are the forests near my home in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, afire with yellow aspen. But climate change is threatening the mountain forests that have been part of our landscape for so long.  

On a hike in the aspens of the Sangre de Cristo mountains with my family. Hopefully my son will be able to grow up enjoying the forests of the southwest, too.

A New Mexico newspaper reported last week that scientists at Los Alamos fear the Southwest may lose the majority of its forests by 2050, less than 40 years from now, and the verdant Pacific Northwest, famed for its vast stands of fir and spruce, might follow suit before the end of the 21st century.

Last week, ClimateWire reported also that a spruce beetle epidemic decimating Colorado’s mountain forests has accelerated, affecting nearly 1 million acres thus far, and a University of Colorado Ph.D. candidate has found a strong link between the spread of the pest and the kind of drier summers we can expect more of with climate change.

The same New Mexico paper ran another story on Saturday, indicating that oceanic temperature variation may delay some of the impacts of climate change in the southwest, but that the longer term trend is still of great concern.


Last week on a family hike; the peak of New Mexican autumnal beauty.

The link between power plant emissions and dead trees

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared there’s overwhelming evidence that human activities are responsible for climate change. The Northern Hemisphere just experienced the warmest 30 years in the past 1,400, and each of the last three decades has been warmer on Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

The root cause is plain: In the United States, power plants account for 40 percent of carbon emissions, and there are still no hard-and-fast limits on the amount of carbon those fossil fuel-burning plants in the Southwest and elsewhere are dumping into the atmosphere. The president is trying to change that as part of his climate plan

Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed standards for new plants and is planning a series of listening sessions in the west and the rest of the country in advance of developing proposed standards to control emissions from existing electricity plants.

Americans need to confront the financial, social, and planetary necessities of serious emissions regulations for both our existing power plants and those yet to be built. As NRDC President Frances Beinecke notes, “The single most important thing we can do to protect our communities from climate change is to reduce dangerous carbon pollution.”

Trees are getting sicker and so are we

The alarming trend among trees, of course, isn’t occurring in isolation. Trees take in and hold carbon dioxide, one of the gases believed to contribute to climate change. As more trees die, the planet’s air loses a vital filter, which means higher carbon dioxide levels in the air we breathe.

Meanwhile, carbon emission from power plants and automobiles hits the human species for billions of dollars every year in premature deaths and illness, hospital bills, work days lost, and other costs. Then add the billions more in human-habitat damage from extreme weather, fueled by carbon pollution.

The dire future for trees

We’ve been worried about climate-connected tree loss for some time; for example, NRDC has been involved in whitebark pine conservation for over nine years. Native to western North America’s mountains, the high-altitude pine has suffered sharp decreases in numbers from the usual climate-change suspects.

This species is an example of the many reasons trees are important besides their beauty. Whitebark pine seeds are a crucial food source to Yellowstone grizzly bears as well as many smaller species – and without it, grizzlies will be searching elsewhere, including populated areas. The trees also provide shelter for other animals. The branches block wind and their shade prolongs snowmelt that influences hydrological processes, including reducing flooding. The trees also stabilize the high mountain soil to reduce erosion.

Without doubt, we need our mountain trees. But to save them, we’re also going to have to cut our power plant emissions. The connection is clear and this is no time for us to be losing sight of our forests – or their futures.