Can Joshua trees survive global warming? Scientists have differing thoughts

It started with a 2011 study that indicated by the turn of the century there would be no more Joshua trees in the national park named after the iconic desert plant. And likely none in California.

“I was shocked when the study came out. I wanted to look at the details and change the scale,” said Cameron Barrows, a research ecologist for the UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology in Palm Desert.

The large scale of the study by Kenneth Cole, a climate scientist for the federal government’s Colorado Plateau Research Station in Flagstaff, Arizona, missed many of the geological nuances of Joshua Tree National Park and elsewhere, according to Barrows, which could ultimately mean survival for the Joshua tree species.

Doing his own modeling, which took a detailed look at the geography of Joshua Tree National Park, Barrows said that going into 2100, this 13,000-year-old desert plant species may survive — at the higher elevations of Joshua Tree National Park and along north-facing slopes and some canyon areas.

Although Barrows presents a more optimistic view on the future of Joshua trees than does Cole, there are still problems, he said. In addition to the warmer winters and summers, there’s air pollution depositing nitrates on the soil, according to Barrows.

That soil enrichment will transform portions of the now largely barren desert into grasslands. The location where the grasses will thrive coincides with the prime habitat for these surviving Joshua trees.

With grasses come forest fires, and the Joshua tree is not a plant that has adapted to fire. Recovery will be difficult, Barrows said, and certainly not helped by the fact that it can take 70 years for a Joshua tree to produce offspring.

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