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Piñon Pine: Studying the Effects of Climate Change on Drought Tolerance (part 2)

Henry Adams, a PhD student at the University of Arizona, is studying the effect of climate change and drought on Piñon Pines in the university’s Biosphere 2 lab (see part 1).  This week, find out how the researchers made comparisons at leaf level, transplanted the trees, and future implications for the Piñon Pine.

Image of a Piñon Pine growing high in the southwest

The Piñon Pine, a conifer with an extensive root system, grows at high elevations in the Southwest. (Image:

Sensitivity to Dry Conditions

Another part of the drought study involved a hydrologist who was interested in using weighing lysimeter data to parameterize some models used by hydrologists to model water loss during drought. “The lysimeters are a pain to run, but they’re pretty sensitive,” says Adams. “They can measure with a 0.1 kg precision, so that sounds like a good way to quantify water loss. It turns out that stomatal conductance from the porometer actually appears more sensitive than the weighing lysimeter data. Water loss from the scale hits zero pretty quickly, and we can’t measure any loss after a couple of weeks, but we can still see water loss with our porometer data from the morning and the evening.”

Close up on a Piñon Pine branch

The Piñon Pine’s root system makes it remarkably drought tolerant, but an extended drought in combination with a bark beetle outbreak killed 12,000 hectares of the trees in 2003. (Image:

Expanding the Experiment

At the peak of the experiment, Adams had undergraduates and lab techs running up to three porometers at a time all day long, and although he’s still buried in data from the first experiment, he’s looking forward to accumulating even more data. “One limitation of our study is that the trees had pretty small root balls when they arrived. We’ve transplanted some trees [at different elevations at a site] in northern Arizona using a full-sized tree mover to get as big a root to shoot ratio as possible in the transplant. We’ll be using the porometers to try to understand the physiology of how these trees die and to predict their temperature sensitivity in the light of global climate change, using elevation change as a surrogate for temperature. We also have trees at the site that are not transplanted to serve as a control for the transplants.”

Herds of cattle in a dry valley with hills

Some ranchers are happy to see the pines go (Image:

Implications for the Future

Adams acknowledges that not everyone in the Southwest is worried about the Piñon Pine. “We work in a system that doesn’t have a lot of economic value. A lot of the ranchers are happy to see the pines go. They just think there will be a lot more grass for the cattle, and firewood cutters are out there cutting up the dead trees and selling them.” But if temperature alone makes trees more susceptible to drought, the implications go far beyond economics. Adams puts it succinctly, if somewhat mildly: “It’s kind of scary.”

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