Category Archives: drought

Downed Trees, Melting Snow and a Waterfall

Snow-covered slopes from the Mt. Waterman Trail

Climbing up the slope and around the big incense cedar I stopped for a moment to enjoy the smell of the splintered wood. There had been so trees across the trail I’d lost count, but this was in the neighborhood of the 35th tree I’d had to work around on my way to Mt. Waterman.

Trees near Three Points burned in the 2009 Station Fire
Trees burned in the 2009 Station Fire

My run on the Mt. Waterman & Twin Peaks Trail had started at Three Points. Initially, I’d been encouraged to see some trees had been cut and removed from the trail. But the area was hard hit by the 2009 Station Fire and the combination of fire, years of drought, and rough winter weather seemed to be felling an increasing number of trees each year.

Across the canyon the north face of Twin Peaks was still blanketed in snow. On this warm, south-facing slope the snow was almost gone, exposing a veneer of pine needles, last Summer’s gray and wilted ferns, and the Winter excavations of industrious moles. In every gulch and gully water spilled down the mountainside; splashing, bubbling and burbling downslope under gravity’s spell.

Snow-covered Mt. Baldy from the Mt. Waterman Trail
Mt. Baldy from the Mt. Waterman Trail

This was supposed to be a recovery run, following last Saturday’s abridged — but arduous — run on the Backbone Trail. (Many thanks to Howard & Mike and all the volunteers!) The plan was to just go to the summit of Waterman and then back down the same way. But… the idea of crawling over, through or around more than 40 trees a second time just didn’t sound that appealing.

When I reached the junction with Mt. Waterman’s summit trail it took about a millisecond to make the decision to continue on the loop. It would be longer, and would have more elevation gain, but it was a beautiful day and my legs felt OK. Who knew when there would be another opportunity to do the loop in these conditions?

Snow along the Mt. Waterman Trail about a half-mile from Buckhorn
Snow along the Mt. Waterman Trail

Much of the trail down to Buckhorn was covered with snow. Not so much snow as to be a problem, but enough to be interesting and scenic. The weather was great and snow conditions excellent. Following the tracks of hikers, my socks didn’t even get wet!

Reaching Angeles Crest Highway, I ran east a short distance to the entrance of Buckhorn Campground. The gate was locked and the campground still closed for the Winter. Patches of snow, deadfall and other debris littered the area. When the camp is open, I top off my water here. Today the faucets were dry, but with the cool weather that would not be an issue.

Most of the hikers on the Burkhart Trail were going to see Cooper Canyon Falls. Seeing the falls was one of the reasons I’d decided to continue on the loop. My thoughts drifted back to April 1995 when Gary Gunder and I carried our kayaks down this trail and paddled Little Rock Creek from Cooper Canyon to the South Fork. (We put-in below the falls.)

The flow over the falls was the most I’d seen in several years and was probably nearing its peak. After enjoying the falls for a few minutes I scrambled out of the gorge and headed up the PCT. Like all that visit the falls, I now had to climb out of Cooper Canyon.

Drought-stressed young pine in Cooper Canyon
Drought-stressed young pine in Cooper Canyon

The effects of a prolonged drought don’t just disappear overnight, no matter how much it rains or snows. This was particularly evident on the sun-baked segment of the PCT above Cooper Canyon Camp. Just above the camp a large, green-needled Jeffry Pine had collapsed, leaving a large crater where its roots had been. In the year since I’d been on the trail, trees on the warmest, south-facing slopes had become more drought-stressed. It seemed additional trees had died and more had yellowing and brown needles.

Cooper Canyon can be hot, but today the temperature was pleasant. Eventually I reached Cloudburst Summit and clambered over a final steep patch of snow to reach the saddle. Three Points was now just a few miles away. I crossed Hwy 2 and started running down the trail.

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Kanan to Mishe Mokwa and Back

Rock formations along the West Fork Arroyo Sequit near the Grotto

As I rounded the rib extending down from Peak 2658 — the site of the old Triunfo Lookout — I peered down into the deep canyon of the West Fork Arroyo Sequit and the towering rock formations above the Grotto. As is the case along many sections of the Backbone Trail the view was superb.

Marker recognizing the significant contributions from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider in the creation of the Backbone Trail
Marker recognizing the significant contributions from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider in the creation of the Backbone Trail.

Earlier, from the Etz Meloy fire road, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands had seemed to be magnified by the ocean haze — the lighter-colored rocks of San Pedro Point clearly visible on the east end of Santa Cruz. To the south, Santa Barbara Island, the smallest of the Channel Islands, had been visible near the horizon.

I was doing an out and back run on the Backbone Trail from the Kanan Road trailhead, and wondering if I had enough water to go to Mishe Mokwa and then the 15 miles back to Kanan. The irony was that, following several years of drought, this Winter it had rained and rained. Water was everywhere, but I had not thought to bring a UV pen or filter.

Padre's shooting star (Primula clevelandii) along the Backbone Trail below the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead.
Shooting stars near the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead.

Reaching the point where the trail turns to the north and has a great view of Sandstone Peak, Circle X and the Mishe Mokwa trailhead I again debated turning around. Across the canyon, sunlight gleamed from the cars parked at the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead. The rocky knolls below the trailhead were green with rain and though I couldn’t see them from here, would be covered with a spectacular patchwork of purple and yellow shooting stars.

Hmm… I’d run a little over 13 miles, so Mishe Mokwa was less than two trail miles away. Going there would add about 3.5 miles to my run.  I lifted my pack to see how much water I had left, and then continued down the trail.

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Between January Storms

Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

From Saturday afternoon’s rain-free run to check out upper Las Virgenes Creek. The nearby Cheeseboro Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) had recorded about 2.0 inches of rain the previous three days and would record another 2.4 inches on the following two. The weather station is on top of the prominent hill in the distance. January was the wettest at Downtown Los Angeles (USC) since January 2005.

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Los Angeles Rainfall Above Normal, But…

Study of mud on the Musch Trail in Southern California

As of yesterday Downtown Los Angeles (USC) has recorded 8.80 inches of rainfall for both the Rainfall Year (July 1 – June 30) and Water Year (October 1 – September 30). By either measure Los Angeles rainfall is well above normal, and with three well-advertised storms in the forecast it looks like Los Angeles rainfall could remain above normal for at least a few weeks.

Even if it has been a bit wet — and muddy — it’s been great to have a more normal rain season. The rain has been very beneficial and has impacted the drought, at least in the short term. Just how much a continued wet rain season would impact the drought in the long term is a question that has to wait for future analysis.

There has been a five year precipitation deficit of nearly 36 inches at Downtown Los Angeles (USC). It’s hard to appreciate the size of this deficit while running in the rain, splashing through puddles, and trying not to slip in the mud. One tangible indicator of this deficit is that despite above average rainfall, many creeks in the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills have remained dry or are barely flowing. Some have been dry for years.

Update Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The atmospheric river event on February 17 produced high flows on many local streams and many of these streams continue to flow. Rainfall totals in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties for the storm generally ranged from 4 to 8 inches with some higher totals recorded. On subsequent trail runs flooding, debris flows and erosion were noted in Upper Sycamore and Blue Canyons in Pt. Mugu State Park. Remarkably, some groundwater monitoring stations in Santa Barbara and San Bernardino Counties remain well below normal.

As of February 28, 2017, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) had recorded 18.50 inches of rain for the Rain Year and Water Year. This is 165% of the normal amount of 11.24 inches for the date, and 124% of the normal amount of rainfall for an entire year. This is the wettest Rain Year (July 1 – June 30) and Water Year (October 1 to September 30) to date since the very wet year of 2004-2005.

Update Tuesday, January 24, 2017. From Wednesday, January 18 through Monday, January 23, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) recorded 5.53 inches of rain, bringing the Rain Year and Water Year precipitation totals to 14.33 inches. This is 217% of the normal amount of 6.65 inches for the date, and 97% of the normal amount of rainfall for the entire Rain Year. It has been the wettest start to the Rain Year (July 1 – June 30) and Water Year (October 1 to September 30) since the very wet year of 2004-2005. There were high rain rates on Sunday, January 22, and Upper Las Virgenes Creek did finally flow for a period of time.

Update Saturday, January 21, 2017. From Wednesday, January 18 through Friday, January 20, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) recorded 2.53 inches of rain, bringing the Rain Year and Water Year precipitation totals to 11.33 inches. The average annual rainfall for Downtown Los Angeles is 14.93 inches. The rain, which was heavy at times on Friday, produced some flooding, rockslides and debris flows. Both branches of upper Garapito Creek are flowing as a result, but Saturday afternoon Upper Las Virgenes Creek was still not flowing.

Upper Las Virgenes Creek – February 22 the flow on Upper Las Virgenes Creek near the Cheeseboro connector and the two downstream crossings was enough that you couldn’t cross without getting your shoes wet. Previously, on January 24, there was no flow near the connector and only a slight trickle downstream. On January 21 the creek was not flowing and there was no evidence it had flowed during a recent storm.

Garapito Creek – On Saturday, January 21, 2017, both branches of upper Garapito Creek were nice burbling brooks. Previously, on January 15, the north branch was just starting to flow, but the south branch was dry.

Upper Sycamore Creek – Flash flooding, debris flows and erosion occurred on this creek following the heavy rain on February 17-18. Nearly 6 inches of rain was recorded at Circle X Ranch, which is also in the western Santa Monica Mountains. Previously, was flowing on February 4, but not on January 1, 2017.

Serrano Creek – Was flowing on February 4, but not on January 1, 2017.

If the wet forecast holds will these streams start to flow? We’ll see!

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Rainy December for Los Angeles

Century City and Downtown Los Angeles

Updated January 4, 2017.

Not since the beginning of the drought has Downtown Los Angeles experienced such a wet December. As of December 31, 2016:

• December rainfall was 2.22 inches above the monthly normal of 2.33 inches.

• The 4.55 inches of rain recorded was the wettest December since December 2010 and the most for any month since January 2010.

Since the Rain Year began July 1, 5.95 inches of rain has fallen at Downtown Los Angeles (USC). This is 1.63 inches above the normal July-December rainfall of 4.32 inches. It is the best start to the Rain Year (Jul 1-Jun 30) and Water Year (Oct 1-Sep 30) since 2010.

The photograph of Century City and Downtown was taken from Temescal Ridge while doing the Will Rogers – Temescal Canyon loop from the End of Reseda Saturday (December 24). According to NWS records Downtown Los Angeles recorded 2.32 inches of rain from December 21 to December 24..

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After the Station Fire: Strawberry Peak Summit Regrowth

Chaparral regrowth near the summit of Strawberry Peak

Did the Colby Canyon – Strawberry Peak – Red Box loop again over the Thanksgiving holidays. While taking some photos near Strawberry’s summit I was struck by the regrowth that has occurred since the 2009 Station Fire. What caught my eye were the bare limbs of the old growth, burned in the fire, projecting from the new, dense, green growth.

The growth of the chaparral over the seven years since the fire does not appear to have been noticeably impaired by the 2011-2015 drought in Southern California. (In the photograph above note the height of the regrowth compared to my friend near the summit.)

This conclusion is based in part on the observation of chaparral regrowth following other fires, such as the 2005 Topanga Fire, but is also supported by comparing the amount of new growth to the pre-Station Fire growth. This can be inferred by the length of the burned limbs and the approximate age of the chaparral when burned by the Station Fire.

According to the FRAP California geodatabase of fire perimeters, the last fire to burn the summit of Strawberry Peak was the 1979 Sage Fire, which burned approximately 30,000 acres. Before that you have to go back to 1896 to find another fire in the database that burned Strawberry’s summit.

In the absence of fire, it appears that in another 23 years the chaparral in the title photo could reach a similar height and extent to the old growth.

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Excursion to Ross Mountain

Ross Mountain on South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell.
South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell, with Ross Mountain at its end.

Nearly every time I’ve climbed Mt. Baden-Powell I’ve wondered about the long ridge extending south from its summit. And nearly every time I’ve summited Baden-Powell I’ve been in the middle of another running adventure, and unable to explore more than a few hundred yards down the ridge. But today I wasn’t running to Eagles Roost or doing a long loop from Islip Saddle. Today the plan was to climb Ross Mountain, a peak far down on Mt. Baden Powell’s south ridge.

Ross Mountain
Ross Mountain

Major mountain ridges are often isolated, aesthetic and adventurous — characteristics that are magnets to mountaineers. While not technically difficult, the excursion to Ross Mountain is demanding. The first step is to climb Baden-Powell — a four mile trek with 2800′ of gain, that tops out at an elevation of about 9400′. From the top of Baden-Powell a use trail then leads down the south ridge three miles over varied terrain to Ross Mountain.

For the most part the use trail is relatively distinct and follows the anticipated route down the ridge. Even so, it is usually not as easy to follow a use trail as it is a conventional trail. It had rained a few days before, and the tracks of the last group to do Ross were vague. The most distinct tracks on the trail were from the recent passage of a bighorn sheep.

Bench on Mt. Baden-Powell's South Ridge.
Bench on Mt. Baden-Powell’s South Ridge.

The route to Ross drops 2100′ in 2.5 miles, then ascends 200′ over the remaining half-mile to the peak. The descent is not continuous. About a mile from Baden-Powell the ridge is interrupted by a large bench, and there are other ups and downs along the way. The ridge can be seen in profile in this image or the PhotographyontheRun masthead.

Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy, Ontario Peak, Iron Mountain and Santiago Peak.
Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy, Ontario Peak, Iron Mountain and Santiago Peak.

The ridge projects into one of the more rugged areas of the San Gabriel Mountains — the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. To the west is the deep canyon of the East Fork, with Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy and Iron Mountain towering above. To the west is the very remote canyon of the Iron Fork, sweeping up to form the 9000′ crest between Throop Peak and Mt. Burnham.

The ridge hosts a wide variety of conifers — limber pine, lodgepole pine, white fir, sugar pine, Jeffrey pine and even a few incense cedars. Life on the ridge is tough, and many of the trees are contorted, broken or stunted. It appears to have been a good year for the sugar pines, and some were heavily laden with cones. Overall the health of the trees on the ridge appeared to be good, with surprisingly few trees in obvious distress from the drought.

Mt. Baden-Powell from Ross Mountain.
Mt. Baden-Powell from Ross Mountain.

A little more than three hours after leaving Vincent Gap I zig-zagged up the final few steep steps to the 7402′ summit of Ross Mountain. Not unlike other vantage points along the ridge, the summit was a pretty spot under a sugar pine tree, but in this case with a small cairn and rain-soaked summit register.

After procrastinating a bit and checking out the south side of Ross Mountain’s elongated summit, I began the journey back to Baden-Powell.

Complex geology at head of Mine Gulch on Mt. Baden-Powell.
Complex geology at head of Mine Gulch.

Surprisingly, considering my plodding pace coming back up the ridge, it took almost exactly the same amount of time to get back to Vincent Gap as it had to go to Ross Mountain. As it worked out, the time lost on the climb back up the ridge was offset by the superb run down the Baden-Powell Trail.

According to my Garmin fenix 3’s barometric altimeter the total gain/loss on this adventure was about 5100′. If the gain/loss is calculated from the GPS track using 1/3 arc-sec DEMs it works out to about 5400′. The round trip distance was 14 miles.

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Plan B: Barley Flats

Pines and pine seedlings at Barley Flats
Pines and pine seedlings at Barley Flats

Nearing the junction I debated what to do — turn left on a well-used trail and climb Strawberry Peak or continue straight on an abandoned, overgrown road and go to Barley Flats? If I continued on the road it would be my second bush-whacking adventure of the day. Earlier, I’d abandoned an exploration in upper Colby Canyon when frequent rifle fire made the canyon feel confined and dangerous. This adventure was my plan B.

Overgrown Forest Service fire road connecting Red Box and Barley Flats, built in 1926.
Overgrown Forest Service fire road built in 1926.

Each time I’ve done Strawberry Peak from Red Box I’ve wondered about that overgrown old road. In the book The San Gabriels, John Robinson mentions that it was a Forest Service fire road built in 1926. It’s shown on the USGS 1934 Mt. Lowe and Mt. Wilson Advance Sheets connecting Red Box Gap and Barley Flats and then continuing to Charlton Flats, Chilao and the high country. Back then Angeles Crest Highway didn’t go to Shortcut Saddle, it turned at Red Box and went to the top of Mt. Wilson.

At the junction, I stepped over the rocks marking the left turn toward Strawberry Peak and started up the old road. After about five yards, I almost turned back. The trail was so overgrown it seemed nearly impassable. Yucca and whitethorn conspired to block the way, or at least make it too painful to proceed.

Having done my share of bush-whacking I’ve learned that it’s usually not as bad as it looks. With a little patience the determined hiker can usually find a tolerable way through. That was the case here, but not only was the trail overgrown, there were downed trees and limbs from the 2009 Station Fire, and several small rock slides and wash outs partially blocking the trail.

Barley Flats with Waterman Mountain and Twin Peaks in the background and Mt. Baldy in the distance.
Barley Flats

For 2.5 miles I kept repeating, “That wasn’t that bad. I’ll just see what’s around the next corner.” After nearly an hour and a half of seeing what was around the next corner — and almost turning back several times — I finally reached Barley Flats.

Like many places in the San Gabriels, Barley Flats has a colorful history. In the middle 1800s the site was a favored hideout of horse thieves and cattle rustlers. During the cold war it was one of the many Nike defense sites surrounding Los Angeles. More recently it was a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Probation Camp and Retreat and today continues to be used as a staging area for LASD’s Air Rescue 5. Much of Barley Flats and the surrounding area was burned in the Station Fire.

Air Rescue 5 airlifts a traffic accident victim from a tight spot on Angeles Crest Highway.
Air Rescue 5 in action on Angeles Crest Highway

Air Rescue 5 has conducted numerous life-saving missions in Angeles National Forest, including countless air ambulance evacuations from “nearly every corner” of Angeles Crest Highway.

Even before reaching Barley Flats I had decided to take an alternate route back to Red Box. Barley Flats sits on the divide between Upper Tujunga Canyon and the West Fork San Gabriel Canyon. Doing a loop through West Fork sounded a lot more appealing than running the thorny gauntlet back to Red Box on the old road.

It took about one-third of the time to run three miles down paved — and brush-free — Barley Flats Road as it had to bushwhack from Red Box to Barley Flats. There were a few hunters out on Barley Flats road, but all had their rifles shouldered. Since leaving Red Box I had heard only one very distant rifle shot — a big change from the far too frequent rifle fire in Colby Canyon.

From the intersection of (gated) Barley Flats Road and Angeles Crest Highway it was only about 0.7 mile over to Shortcut Saddle. At Shortcut I picked up the Silver Moccasin Trail. As I began to run down the trail toward West Fork, I reached around with one hand and lifted my pack. How much water remained?

Spring at West Fork
Spring at West Fork

The plan was to run down to West Fork, get water, and then run up the Rincon-Red Box fire road to Red Box — completing a loop. The spring at West Fork is usually reliable, but with the drought I couldn’t be 100% sure. Nearby Mt. Wilson was recently forced to close its restrooms and turn off the water spigots used by hikers and runners because of insufficient water.

I was surprised to find the spring was running as strong as it had been in early July during the Mt. Disappointment Endurance Runs. Water was not going to be an issue on the five mile run up to Red Box.

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Glimpse of Autumn

Oaks and clouds Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

I was running in the hills along the western margin of the San Fernando Valley and reveling in the Autumn-like weather. The hills were parched, brown, and the soil dessicated. In 128 days it had not rained.

An area of low pressure was producing some clouds and even a little rain in some parts of Los Angeles County. The last time it had been this cool in the afternoon was in mid-June. The pleasant temperature was a welcome change from the 80s, 90s and 100s of Summer.

Precipitation from the 2015-16 Godzilla El Nino fell short of expectations, with Downtown Los Angeles only recording 65% of normal rainfall and the drought continuing into its fifth year. How long would we have to wait  until we received widespread rainfall?

At the moment the expectation is for ENSO Neutral conditions to prevail this Winter. Neutral conditions give forecasters little leverage on which to base their Winter outlook, but based on last year’s Southern California precipitation forecasts, we didn’t have much leverage then either.

With a warming planet, we appear to be in a new regime. Forecasts based on 1950-2000 analogs may no longer be applicable. As of September 15 the Climate Prediction Center’s Precipitation Outlook for Southern California for December, January and February is the equivalent of flipping a three-sided coin.

We may just have to wait and see what the Winter brings.

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Old Forest, New Forest

Regrowth near Grassy Hollow following the 1997 Narrows Fire

Each time I’ve run the segment of the Pacific Crest Trail between Inspiration Point and Vincent Gap I’ve been curious about a cluster of young pines in a burned area near Grassy Hollow. The trees appear to be older than similar areas of regrowth along the PCT between Mt. Baden-Powell and Little Jimmy Spring, which burned in the 2002 Curve Fire.

In turns out the area near Grassy Hollow was burned in the 18,186 acre Narrows Fire in 1997. That would make these trees about five years older than the Curve Fire regrowth.

Considering our huge precipitation deficit in Southern California over the past five years, the young trees in the Curve and Narrows fire areas seem to be doing surprisingly well.

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Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods: Fighting the Drought

Epicormic sprouts along the trunk of a drought-stressed coast redwood in Malibu Creek State Park. July 3, 2016.

Recently, I revisited the coast redwoods along Century Lake in Malibu Creek State Park . Several months ago I’d been disheartened to find many of these trees severely stressed by our five year drought. Several of the trees had lost most of their foliage. Based on my own photos and those from Google Earth, the trees had rapidly deteriorated in just a few months.

I started at the the westernmost redwood near the junction of the Forest Trail and Crags Road and worked east along the Forest Trail. I expected to see a decline in the trees since my last visit, but surprisingly that wasn’t the case. If anything the trees looked they might be doing a little better.

Apparently dead coast redwood at Malibu Creek State Park
Possibly dead coast redwood at Malibu Creek State Park

From west to east I counted about 16 trees or clonal clusters of trees. Of these, the trees on the bank of Century Lake appear to be the most severely impacted. At least one tree, with poison oak growing up its trunk, may have died.

A common drought response is for a plant to reduce its foliage. The size of its leaves may be reduced and leaf shape modified to reduce water loss. In some cases trees will become dormant and lose their foliage. Trees may also enter seasonal dormancy early and the period of dormancy may be extended.

It’s been my experience that trees respond to severe water stress in a manner similar to losing their foliage in a fire. One redwood that had appeared to be dead in March, now has new epicormic sprouts over the length of its trunk.

Basal sprouting of coast redwood at Malibu Creek State Park
Basal sprouting of coast redwood at Malibu Creek State Park

Another mechanism by which a redwood may survive the drought is by clonal sprouting from buds in its basal burl. It is common for coast redwoods to have numerous basal sprouts and sometimes these develop into additional trunks.

The easternmost redwood is of particular interest because it appears to be naturally-germinated. For now it is stressed, but surviving.

The survival of these trees is not only dependent on the drought, but climate factors such as temperature and fog frequency and persistence. Only time will tell if some of the trees are resilient enough to survive.

Related post: The Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods Are Dying

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