Scattered tree death contributes to substantial forest loss in California

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Abstract

In recent years, large-scale tree mortality events linked to global change have occurred around the world. Current forest monitoring methods are crucial for identifying mortality hotspots, but systematic assessments of isolated or scattered dead trees over large areas are needed to reduce uncertainty on the actual extent of tree mortality. Here, we mapped individual dead trees in California using sub-meter resolution aerial photographs from 2020 and deep learning-based dead tree detection. We identified 91.4 million dead trees over 27.8 million hectares of vegetated areas (16.7-24.7% underestimation bias when compared to field data). Among these, a total of 19.5 million dead trees appeared isolated, and 60% of all dead trees occurred in small groups (≤ 3 dead trees within a 30 × 30 m grid), which is largely undetected by other state-level monitoring methods. The widespread mortality of individual trees impacts the carbon budget and sequestration capacity of California forests and can be considered a threat to forest health and a fuel source for future wildfires.

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Cheng, Y., Oehmcke, S., Brandt, M., Rosenthal, L., Das, A., Vrieling, A., … Horion, S. (2024). Scattered tree death contributes to substantial forest loss in California. Nature Communications, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-44991-z

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