An aerial survey by the U.S. Forest Service has revealed some startling information: since 2010, California's drought has claimed the lives of 102 million trees across 7.7 million acres of forest. In the 2016 calendar year alone, 62 million trees have died —marking a massive 100 percent increase in tree mortality in the state compared to 2015—and millions of weakened trees are estimated to fall in the upcoming months and years.
"The scale of die-off in California is unprecedented in our modern history," Randy Moore, a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, told The L.A. Times. Moore added that trees are dying "at a rate much quicker than we thought."
In addition to changing the landscape of California, the tree deaths leave both the residents and the environment at risk. First off, there's the public safety hazard that comes with falling trees. Consider this: the California Tree Failure Report program from University of California reported 5,902 recorded incidents as of Oct. 17 of this year compared to the 2,587 incidents in 2010 calendar. Then there's the fact that dying trees can fuel wildfires since fires spread quicker with dead wood—tree corpses—in forests.
"These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The death of trees has been attributed to three factors: a spike in bark beetle infestation, "a record low mountain snowpack and warm temperatures," and five consecutive years of severe drought. While most of the drought exists in the southern part of the state, the U.S. Forest Service notes that conditions in the northern region is escalating.
Dead trees and drought have an added impact on water supply—national forests provide roughly half of the state's $9.5 billion water supply by filtering precipitation, which provides Californians with clean water and supports the agricultural economy of the state. During droughts, water levels decrease and when droughts weaken, water levels increase.
In response to tree mortality, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency last year and made a a Tree Mortality Task Force. According to the U.S. Forest Service, $43 million have been put aside for California to "conduct safety-focused restoration along roads, trails and recreation sites." The upcoming winter is slated to relieve the drought but experts anticipate trees to continue dying for another year or two.