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2011 Drought Cost Texas More Than 300M Trees

By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter
9/29/2012 10:05:44 AM

HOUSTON -- More than 300 million trees were lost in the great Texas drought of 2011, according to scientists in a report published this week.

Photo courtesy of Daveybot

And that's not counting trees lost in urban areas, said researchers at the Texas A&M University Forest Service.

Earlier this year, the same research team reported that the greatest single-year drought in the Lone Star State's history killed nearly 6 million trees in city parks, floodways and watersheds. The toll has been burdening strained city government budgets with the costs of clearing dead trees for safety reasons.

Through a combination of satellite photography, imagery analysis and on-site surveys, Forest Service researchers concluded that the drought killed about 301 million trees in rural Texas in total, landing almost in the middle of the office's earlier estimated range of 100 million to 500 million trees killed from factors directly related to drought stress.

In an interview, forest resource analyst Chris Edgar explained that special satellite imaging technology allowed his team to spot groves of dead trees, which show up red on photographs. Texas A&M researchers also conducted on-the-ground surveys and assessments of what caused tree deaths, often in parts of the state still visibly affected by the 2011 drought, he said.

"There's an area up by Lake Conroe that had a lot of mature pine trees, and that's pretty visible," Edgar said. "It really pops out: It's kind of red on the satellite imagery after we do our analysis, and that means the vegetation has changed there greatly and there's much less greenness."

Edgar singled out the Brazos River Valley as one area that was particularly hard hit. The area includes dry lands around the city of Bastrop where major wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes at the height of the drought, which coincided with a hotter-than-normal summer with temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit that stretched out for weeks.

"Just under one out of every 10 trees died as a result of the drought," he explained.

Researchers believe so many trees were lost as the lack of rainfall made them susceptible to fungus, diseases or even beetle infestations that they would have otherwise been able to survive. The drought killed a wide variety of tree species, and pine trees fared better than most.

The impact can be seen uniformly throughout Texas, though the eastern side of the state saw less damage, as it's generally wetter.

Drought creeping back into some areas

Edgar says the Texas A&M Forest Service is advising all landowners and municipalities to survey their properties to see where dead trees might have to be removed to minimize fire risk and prevent injury or property damage from falling trees.

"Everyone, whether you're in Houston or out in the country, needs to make an assessment of these dead trees, and anything that's a hazard to property or life probably needs to be removed," he said. "So we're definitely encouraging everyone to do that."

This year, Texas has enjoyed fairly good rainfall and even has had flash flooding in some parts of the eastern third of the state, especially around Houston, where the rains have been intense at times.

That stands in stark contrast to the Midwest, where drought conditions are threatening crops and livestock. But yesterday, the state government warned that Texas is still threatened by dry conditions that now appear to be expanding from other parts of the nation into some areas of the state.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality warned that "large sections of the state are experiencing exceptional or extreme drought." The latest Drought Monitor map posted on that agency's website shows that drought conditions have returned to parts of the state that were earlier deemed to be out of them, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, San Antonio and Austin.

TCEQ still considers the Houston-Galveston metro area to be free from drought conditions. But red zones on the map are apparent in the state's far south and in the Texas Panhandle, where some regions are said to be suffering from extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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