Climate Change Could Kill Off Southern California’s Joshua Trees

A new study shows even best-case scenarios aren’t great

Southern California’s Joshua trees are imperiled by more than idiot celebrities with Instagram accounts and rule-averse visitors with ATVs.

A study published in June by researchers at UC Riverside, reported on by the San Bernardino Sun, used historic climate data and climate projections to determine how long and how much of the landscape in Joshua Tree National Park can continue to support its population of iconic Yucca brevifolia. Even the best-case scenario—which predicts an approximately 80 percent reduction in sustainable habitat for the plants—is pretty grim. The “business-as-usual” climate scenario, as researchers call it, “indicated an almost complete elimination of Joshua trees from the park” by the end of the century. It remains likely that the trees will have the best chance of surviving at higher elevations, until those areas warm up and dry out like the lower elevations.

According to the researchers, the scenarios are dependent almost entirely on what humans continue to do to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions in the coming years. “We have a range of scenarios,” said Lynn Sweet, the study’s lead author told the L.A. Times. “If there’s global action on climate change, we might preserve [the] habitat. And if not, we might see it disappear.”

The good news is that California has already set ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gasses by adopting cleaner forms of energy. And crews are currently working to mitigate wildfire risk by cutting down dry grasses fertilized by polluted rain that can act as fuel.

Californians should take a cue from Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club, who says the study, although depressing, can serve as motivation. “I’m not the kind of person that wants to roll up into a fetal position and cry,” she says. “I want to take action and fight back.”

RELATED: Experts Are Assessing the Damage Done to Joshua Tree During the Shutdown—and It’s Grim

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