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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rapid vegetation redistribution in Southern California during the early 2000s drought

  • Author(s): Fellows, Aaron W.
  • Goulden, Michael L.
  • et al.

 Climate change in semi-arid, midlatitude mountain environments is expected to shift the spatial patterns of temperature, water availability, and vegetation upslope. Vegetation growing near its low-elevation range limit may prove especially vulnerable to mortality and decline. We investigated the altitudinal pattern of conifer mortality that occurred from 2002 to 2004 in Southern California's San Jacinto Mountains. We found that conifer mortality was focused in the lower portion of the midmontane conifer range, which drove the midmontane conifer distribution upslope. We investigated past reports of conifer mortality in Southern California by searching historical newspaper accounts. We found evidence of previous episodes of conifer mortality that coincided with past droughts, and which may have caused vegetation redistribution in the past. We interpret the early 2000s mortality and associated vegetation redistribution as a response to natural decadal to centennial climate variability. Moreover, we hypothesize this response mode will dominate the early impact of global climate change on semi-arid forest, which, in turn, may complicate efforts to distinguish between ecological changes attributable to natural climate variability and those attributable to global climate change.

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