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Why are the trees dying?

Editorial for Jan. 29, 2009

It's a dire report. A group of scientific experts have released a well-researched study (in the highly respected Science magazine, Jan. 23 issue) that shows that the death rate of trees in old-growth forests of the Western United States has doubled in recent years.

Once again, the evidence points to global warming as the cause of the increased rate of dying trees. In fact, the researchers are convinced that the trees' deaths are not being caused by factors such as increased air pollution, impacts related to fire-suppression techniques, or "normal" forest dynamics.

The evidence supports increased temperatures as the culprit, with even minor temperature changes having a significant impact. Even a degree or two can harm the overall health of trees, as warmer temperatures reportedly serve to weaken the trees, making them more susceptible to attacks by beetles.

The tree deaths could lead to "sudden, extensive die-back," the report warns. And make no mistake -- those dead and dying trees contribute to the frequency and severity of our forest fires.

It's also very bad news for the forest products industry, which relies on healthy, self-sustaining forests for vital raw materials.

Sadly, we continue to have a small core of elected representatives in Congress who consistently debunk what they call the "myth" of global warming. Their answer to any problems scientists report as being related to global warming is irrational: "It's just a natural cycle," they say. The implication seems to be: "Therefore we can all ignore these problems and go back to sleep." In a prime example of this type of inane asinine thinking, in December 2006, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) -- who at the time was the chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee -- released a 64-page document titled: "A Skeptic's Guide to Debunking Global Warming."

This approach is unfortunate and absurd. While there may be some natural cycles in play, the potential problems being caused by climate change are much too dire to ignore. And we certainly trust experienced scientists much more than a group of politicians who appear to be more interested in political power than in taking a long view of what our planet needs to stay healthy.

At least we now have a president in office who will not try to suppress scientific reports he doesn't like in order to fit his particular ideological philosophy. That will be a big help, but it will also require wise action by the full Congress, by state leaders, by the American people, and by leaders and citizens all around the world.

As one of the researchers in the Science study pointed out: "Tree deaths are like interest on a bank account -- the effects compound over time. Is the trend we're seeing a prelude to bigger, more abrupt changes to our forests?"

These are very serious, daunting questions.

There is no time to waste in finding answers and trying to craft solutions.



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