The mighty trees can live more than 1,000 years, resisting bugs and rot and even defending themselves against injury, but their shallow roots are vulnerable to freezing if soil is not insulated by snow. And for more than a century, with less snow on the ground, frozen roots have killed yellow cedar on nearly half a million acres in southeast Alaska, plus another 123,000 acres in the adjacent British Columbia province of Canada.
The detective work on the tree deaths will help forest managers decide where yellow cedar is likely to thrive in the future. But the yellow cedar experience also underscores the increasing importance that climate change will play in managing forests, said Paul Schaberg, a Forest Service plant pathologist from Burlington, Vt., one of five authors of a paper about the tree in this month's Bioscience journal.
"As time goes on and climates change even more, other species, other locations, are likely to experience similar kinds of progressions, so you might do well to understand this one so you can address those future things," Schaberg said.
Yellow cedar and western red cedar were valued by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people who used the wood for canoe paddles and totem poles. They could remove bark from a tree for weaving and as backing in blankets. The tree could compartmentalize the injury and continue growing.