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Climate is changing too quickly for the Sierra Nevada's 'zombie forests'


Climate change is happening too quickly for some trees in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. New research shows that 1 in 5 conifers likely won't survive the climate conditions they now live in. NPR's Joe Hernandez reports on the fate of these so-called zombie forests.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Even if you've never been to the Sierra Nevadas, you can probably picture the striking terrain.

AVERY HILL: Ponderosa pines, Jeffrey pines. There are some Douglas firs in there, as well. And these typically large, tall trees dominate these forests in the landscape.

HERNANDEZ: That's Avery Hill, who studied these trees as a graduate student at Stanford University. Hill and other researchers compared vegetation data from the 1930s to the present, and they found that 20% of the conifers in the California Sierra Nevadas are now a mismatch for the climate they live in. That means it's only a matter of time before these trees die out and get replaced with other types of plants.

HILL: They're kind of, you know, cheating death in a way. We think of them as the standing dead.

HERNANDEZ: That's why Hill and others have started calling these areas zombie forests. And the reason these conifers are in such danger is because the climate has changed a lot. Temperatures are warming, and there's less rainfall in these areas, which are also seeing an increase in wildfires and human activities like logging.

HILL: So altogether, these drivers are shaping kind of the forest of the future.

HERNANDEZ: The researchers made maps showing exactly where these Sierra Nevada zombie forests are, and Hill hopes that'll help put climate change into perspective for viewers.

HILL: It's not backwards looking like I think a lot of the kind of ecosystem change conversations are. It's forward looking and saying, OK, well, now what (laughter)?

HERNANDEZ: Having the knowledge of what climate change will do ahead of time gives people a choice, Hill says - try to resist or contain these changes or accept that they're going to happen. Joe Hernandez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.