Joshua Tree National Park’s Namesake Plants Under Serious Threat From Climate Change

New research from UC Riverside scientists suggest unchecked climate change could destroy the Joshua tree habitat. Here’s what you can do to help save the trees.

Joshua Tree National Park’s Namesake Plants Under Serious Threat From Climate Change

Joshua Tree National Park’s iconic trees are at risk of extinction by the end of the century.

Photo by Shutterstock

Vanishing glaciers in Iceland. Coastal flooding in Mediterranean UNESCO sites. When you think of climate change affecting popular destinations, it’s likely these come to mind first. But even deserts aren’t immune to rising temperatures, a new study shows.

Joshua trees have survived in the harsh climate of the U.S. Southwest for roughly 2.5 million years. But if left unchecked, climate change—and increasing droughts—could nearly wipe out the Joshua tree population in the eponymous national park in California by the end of this century, according to scientists from UC Riverside.

The report, which was published in the scientific journal Ecosphere, found that younger Joshua trees can currently thrive in approximately 8,715 acres in and around Joshua Tree National Park. If greenhouse gas emissions are majorly reduced and summer temperatures only increase by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 19 percent of the Joshua tree habitat in the national park could be saved beyond the year 2070. But if drastic measures aren’t taken to cut back on carbon emissions, 0.02 percent—or just 15 acres—of that Joshua tree habitat will survive after 2070.

While individual Joshua trees can live up to 300 years, only adult trees are capable of storing enough water to survive long droughts. Because younger trees aren’t able to hold large water reserves, they had a harder time surviving the California drought that lasted from December 2011 to March 2019. According to Dr. Cameron Barrows, an associate researcher and ecologist at UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology, two to three consistent years of drought can kill a seedling Joshua tree. Droughts like this are expected to happen more frequently as the climate changes.

What you can do to help

“The fate of these unusual, amazing trees is in all of our hands,” the project lead Lynn Sweet, a UC Riverside plant ecologist, told, a science and research news service. “Their numbers will decline, but how much depends on us.”

In addition to doing your own part to lessen your impact on the environment, you can also volunteer to take part in future research projects. For this report, UC Riverside teamed up with Earthwatch to recruit volunteers to help gather data in the national park on more than 4,000 trees. While Earthwatch’s 2019 expedition teams are fully booked, there is still availability on all four of its seven-day Joshua Tree research trips in 2020. Organizations like the Mojave Desert Land Trust and NPS Volunteers in Parks also offer similar opportunities.

If you’re unable to give your time, you can also donate your money to help fund research, educate the public, and care for the desert land in Joshua Tree National Park through foundations like Earthwatch and Mojave Desert Land Trust, as well as the Joshua Tree National Park Association, the park’s nonprofit partner since 1962.

>> Next: 8 Easy Ways to Lessen Your Impact as a Traveler

Lyndsey Matthews is the senior commerce editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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