The massive drought in California is still expected to continue at least until this winter. The state has been forced to adopt unprecedented water restrictions, and that’s only part of the story. While California’s drought is extraordinary, and extraordinarily dry, the majority of western North America received incredibly little snow. As a result, the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington are worried about where their water is coming from. The drought has already netted billions of dollars of damage to California’s agriculture, and that loss will inevitably be passed onto consumers. Many experts are warning of a surge in beef prices.

Drought may even be affecting Canada, with Alberta’s grain prices rising due to the prediction of drought and record low snowpack this year. California and the western Canadian provinces share another issue as well, namely Western pine beetle infestations.   There are a few factors that may make this year’s pine beetle infestation worse than usual. Firstly, the winter was relatively warm. Cold weather often controls pine beetle populations. It takes several days of temperatures around -40ºF/C to adversely affect beetle population. Therefore, there are more beetles, and they regularly coordinate attacks on individual trees. These coordinated attacks can overwhelm even healthy trees.   Sometimes trees are able to fight off a pine beetle attack if they are invaded by relatively few beetles and are healthy. Think of it like the human immune system. If you come in contact with one bacterium, you probably won’t get sick. If you come in contact with several million of them, you probably will. Trees are suffering from water stress in California, leaving them especially vulnerable. The pine beetles attacks what’s called the phloem, living bark under the mostly dead external layers. The phloem can be though of as a tree’s vascular system.  It transfers sugars and other metabolites from the leaves to other organs. Resin is one such metabolite, and trees use it as a defence against insects and even small herbivores.  Drought stressed trees have a harder time making resin to trap invading beetles and can be overwhelmed by a single beetle attacking.

Not only is California experiencing deep drought, and tree death, but also intense heat. The heat is dangerous for humans and other animals, vis à vis heat stroke and exhaustion. Sadly, warmer water, which is a problem in California too, is very dangerous for sea lion pups as well. Tragically, warmer water forces adult sea lions to swim farther from the shore to find fish, as fish like cooler water. Their abandoned pups have been getting stranded this year in unprecedented levels. In fact, five times more sea lions were taken into a rescue facility than are typically rescued in any given year.   What can be dangerous about sea lion strandings is that they can become aggressive when they interact with humans. Thousands of tuna crabs have also been stranded in California, and while that is clearly a bad thing for the crabs, it possibly heralds an end to California’s drought. California is hoping that the winter will bring with it much needed rain, but these hopes did not materialize last year.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 

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