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Tree mortality in blue oak woodland during extreme drought in Sequoia National Park, California

January 22, 2020

Blue oak woodlands in California have been a focus of conservation concern for many years. Numerous studies have found that existing seedling and sapling numbers are inadequate to sustain current populations, and recent work has suggested that blue oak woodlands might be particularly vulnerable to a warming climate. California has recently experienced a drought of historically unprecedented severity, resulting in the mortality of tens of millions of trees, including an apparent spike in mortality in oak communities. Here we present the results of a survey of tree mortality and composition in blue oak woodlands in Sequoia National Park. We found that 18% (95% CI = 14–24,) of all standing trees and 23% (95% CI = 17–30) of standing Quercus douglasii Hook. & Arn. (blue oak) were dead, substantially higher than proportions of dead trees recorded in pre-drought datasets, which showed 4% (95% CI = 2–9) standing dead for all trees and 5% (95% CI = 4–7) dead or 8% (95% CI = 4–16) standing dead for blue oak. Furthermore, much of this mortality appeared to be recent. Based on foliage or fine twig retention, 19% (95% CI = 14–26) of blue oak and 23% (95% CI = 16–31) of Quercus wislizeni A. DC. (interior live oak) appear to have died recently. In contrast, only 5% (95% CI = 3–8) of Aesculus californica (Spach) Nutt. (California buckeye) and 5% (95% CI = 2–11) of Fraxinus dipetala Hook. & Arn. (California ash) appear to have died recently. Even after such high mortality, with blue oak basal area dropping by 26% (from 9.5 m2/ha [95% CI = 7.4–11.6] to 7.0 m2/ha [95% CI = 5.3–8.7]), blue oak remains the dominant species in these ecosystems. However, given the lack of recruitment and the apparent vulnerability to extreme drought, blue oak populations may be at risk for severe decline if such mortality events become more frequent.

Publication Year 2020
Title Tree mortality in blue oak woodland during extreme drought in Sequoia National Park, California
DOI 10.3120/0024-9637-66.4.164
Authors Adrian J. Das, Nicholas J. Ampersee, Anne Hopkins Pfaff, Nathan L. Stephenson, Tedmund J Swiecki, Elizabeth A Bernhardt, Patricia Haggerty, Koren R. Nydick
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Madroño
Index ID 70208838
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center