Sustainability Climate Change

Trees that survived the California drought could contain the key to climate resilience

Sugarpine trees in a forest

Story at a glance

  • Scientists are breeding the trees that survived California’s historic drought to make the forests of tomorrow more resilient.
  • In California, a greenhouse full of 10,000 baby trees descended from 100 of those survivors will eventually be planted around the Lake Tahoe area.
  • The researchers hope efforts like this can buy ecosystems time to adapt to the planet’s rapidly changing climate.

California’s five-year drought killed 129 million trees across the state’s forests. Their lifeless trunks are mostly still standing, but among their browning leaves and needles are survivors — trees that withstood the historically hot, dry years that climate change is expected to make more frequent and more intense in coming decades.

Now, scientists are searching for these survivors to figure out if they’ve got genetic tricks up their sleeves that allowed them to pull through, NPR reports. Identifying these traits and seeding forests with super-saplings that possess them could help future forests persist in the hotter, more volatile climate to come. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the surviving trees turned out to be more efficient in their use of water than their neighbors that kicked the bucket. Forest biologist Patricia Maloney, of the University of California, Davis, wants to make sure the genes that kept these trees alive endure. 

In a greenhouse in Lake Tahoe, Calif., Maloney is raising 10,000 sugar pine seedlings, each descended from one of 100 hardy trees that withstood the drought. The saplings will be planted around the Lake Tahoe area over the course of the next year in hopes of making the area’s forests more resilient to the increasing stresses of drought and heat. 

This is how evolution by natural selection works in nature, too — the plants and animals with the right genetics to survive pass on their genes and eventually outnumber their competition. But Maloney and other scientists around the world are trying to accelerate the process by propagating and even engineering the toughest customers to help nature keep pace with climate change.

Maloney will also be studying the DNA of these trees to try to pinpoint the genes that allowed them to survive, which could one day be transferred to climate-stressed forests elsewhere. 

Scientists note that the best these efforts can do is buy us time. If greenhouse gasses continue to increase, then the planet’s ecosystems, and the myriad benefits humanity knowingly and unknowingly reaps from them, will be violently remade. But, every decade counts when it comes to efforts that can buy our planet’s natural heritage.