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Environment & Science

How climate change is affecting the desert landscape

The sun sets at Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Photo taken at Boy Scout Trail head.
The sun sets at Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Photo taken at Boy Scout Trail head.
Richard Lui/The Desert Sun

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Nearly all of the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park could disappear by the end of the century because of climate change.

It can be hard to imagine that, in the deserts of the American Southwest, a few degrees hotter can drastically affect a place that's already hot. Many predictions of rising worldwide temperatures often conjure up images of swelling shorelines because of shrinking polar ice caps. 

But Ian James, environment reporter for The Desert Sun, wrote a three-part investigation on how climate change could drastically affect the flora, fauna, and people of this arid landscape.

"Basically in the desert there's very little humidity in the air," said James on Take Two. "That lack of humidity in the air, in the soil, in the whole region makes it so the hotter temperatures don't have that one other element to bump up against that would make it a little less intense."

As a result, he adds, places like the deserts of the Southwest have seen a higher increase in average temperature than elsewhere in the country. Researchers like Cameron Barrows, ecologist at UC Riverside, told James that could lead to profound impacts on the landscapes, including a site like Joshua Tree National Park.

"About 90 percent of the Joshua trees within the park would be gone," says Barrows, explaining that it would take just decades for that to happen. But already husks of Joshua trees are scattered throughout the park where, a few years ago, lush, vibrant trees had stood.

Currently, researchers are finding that new trees and seedlings are propagating more at higher elevations — and cooler climates — but what's unknown is if they can sustainably adapt in the long-term.

Another finding by reporter Ian James is climate change's impact on the populations of the people in the deserts as well as throughout Southern California. For example, Lake Mead, a reservoir just east of Las Vegas, has steadily lost more and more water over the years that a stories-high bathtub ring has formed around its perimeter. That indicates how its current level compares with where it's historically been.

"It's a lifeline of water for this region, and it's less than half-full right now," said James. "What will this region need to do to adapt?"

He adds, "I hope that readers and people who look at the photos and videos [of my series] will come away with more knowledge of what's known about what's happened so far. And based on that, have more an idea of how climate change will affect the region in the future."

Read all of James' series that looks into climate change's effects on the plants, animals and people of the desert.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Forest could be gone in a few decades. To clarify, scientists estimate that the trees could be completely gone in by the end of the century.