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Newsletter: For the Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park, time may be running out

Joshua Tree
A moonbeam cuts across the sky at Joshua Tree National Park. If little is done to stem the tides of climate change, scientists say, the Joshua trees may be completely eliminated from the nearly 800,000-acre park by the end of the century.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Aug. 7, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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Joshua Tree National Park is barely 40 miles from Palm Springs if you take Highway 62, but the surreal landscape of the park has arguably more in common with the moon than the low-slung midcentury homes to the west.

It’s a stark desert tableau, framed by giant boulders and looming rock formations so fantastical that one is tempted to believe in either God or aliens, if only to explain their origins. The park has otherworldly vistas, vast expanses and, of course, the eponymous, impossibly limbed Joshua trees, which National Geographic has characterized as “an international symbol of the American desert.”

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Joshua trees are native to the American Southwest and grow wild only here in the Mojave Desert and other parts of the Southwest. They are not actually trees at all but a member of the agave family, which rarely appears in such tree-like formations.

Their species dates to the Pleistocene era, when glaciers still covered giant swaths of the globe. The humble Yucca brevifolia has outlived too many human civilizations to count, but time may finally be running out for the Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park, unless drastic climate action is taken.

A new study conducted by the UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology looked at how the park’s “trees” would fare under various climate scenarios, and the results are bleak.

In a “business-as-usual scenario” where little is done to stem the tides of climate change, the scientists’ modeling “indicated an almost complete elimination of Joshua trees from the park” by the end of the century.

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[See also: “Why Joshua Tree National Park may be saying goodbye to most of its iconic trees in the next 81 years” in the San Bernardino Sun]

“We have a range of scenarios,” said Lynn Sweet, a UC Riverside plant ecologist and the lead author on the study. “If there’s global action on climate change, we might preserve [the] habitat. And if not, we might see it disappear.” The scientists tied their models to emissions scenarios put out by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and future forecasts based on those emissions scenarios created by expert climatologists. Their models looked at the future of Joshua trees in the park for the years 2070 to 2099.

By the year 2100, “it could look like a forest of dead trees and no new trees,” Sweet said. Or, “it could look like just a few trees hanging on. We’re not really sure.”

In their “pessimistic scenario,” we could see average hot temperatures in the summer be about five to nine degrees Fahrenheit hotter in the park, with perhaps as much as three to seven inches less rainfall per year. “Which is a lot,” she said. “If Joshua trees could survive those conditions, they would already be in them.”

[See also: “Bigger wildfires. Worsening droughts. More disease. How climate change is battering California” in the Los Angeles Times]

Of course, in a turn-of-the-next-century California wrought by worst-case scenario climate predictions, a Joshua Tree National Park tragically devoid of living Joshua trees would probably be among the least of our concerns. (Deadly heat spells, surging sea levels, apocalyptic wildfires and destructive droughts certainly come to mind.) But a future of such dystopian proportions can be difficult to wrap our heads around.

Put all of the above in a single logline and you can almost imagine the studio executive telling a Hollywood screenwriter that it’s too many disasters for one movie. The audience will tune out.

So instead, picture a nearly 800,000-acre park where a towering and notoriously tough succulent has survived for millennia, now punctuated by dead Joshua trees.

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“Our goal was to give people a really tangible look at what might happen if we don’t reduce carbon emissions,” Sweet said.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

President Trump won’t get a citizenship question on the census, but Latino kids may still be undercounted. The president in July abandoned his efforts to add a citizenship question to next year’s census as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Now activists nationwide are campaigning to assure immigrants it is safe to participate in the once-a-decade tally that determines how federal money and power is apportioned. But many fear that irreparable harm already has been done, and they are bracing for a record undercount. Los Angeles Times

Federal authorities have launched a domestic terrorism investigation into the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival after officials discovered the gunman had a list of other potential targets. Among the targets were religious organizations, courthouses, federal buildings and political institutions involving the Republican and Democratic parties, FBI special agent in charge John F. Bennett said during a news conference. Los Angeles Times

California’s first-in-the-nation law requiring presidential primary candidates to release their tax returns or be kept off the ballot is being challenged in federal court by Trump, the man who inspired its passage and whose attorneys argued that state Democratic leaders had overstepped their constitutional authority. Los Angeles Times

Toni Morrison, one of the country’s most celebrated writers, has died at 88. With “Beloved” and other writings, Morrison gave voice to the silences in the past and created some of the most memorable characters in American literature. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

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“I think it’s cute and quirky and kind of funny,” says Kathryn Kidd, owner of the Manhattan Beach house. Neighbors disagree.
“I think it’s cute and quirky and kind of funny,” says Kathryn Kidd, owner of the Manhattan Beach house. Neighbors disagree.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

An “emoji house” feud has erupted in Manhattan Beach, where residents say the bright-pink painted house is a public nuisance — and an act of retaliation against a resident who reported illegal short-term rentals. Los Angeles Times

Malibu wanted to crack down on huge mansions. But fire losses could bring even bigger homes. Los Angeles Times

Pasadena is clamping down on hookah restaurants, citing a decade-old but seldom enforced law meant to curb tobacco use in the city. Pasadena Star-News

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

With the focus on Trump and “the Squad,” freshmen Democrats in California swing districts struggle to stay on message. Los Angeles Times

More than 1,000 public pensions in California are so big that they exceed IRS limits. Sacramento Bee

CRIME AND COURTS

Two Temecula residents face murder charges in the fatal shooting of LAPD Officer Juan Diaz. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A 3-foot snake slithered its way into the Marin County courthouse before being captured by a sheriff’s deputy. California living has never been for the faint of heart. Marin Independent Journal

Temperatures soared to 121 degrees in Palm Springs on Monday, toppling a 50-year-old maximum temperature record. Desert Sun

How deadly is California’s I-5 in summer? A report on dangerous highways has answers. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Here are the most ridiculous Burning Man items for sale on Craigslist in the Bay Area, including a mustache-wearing yurt and a pair of 7-foot neon toe sculptures. The latter, which are for sale in Emeryville for $800, would be a “perfect addition to your foot fetish Burning Man theme camp,” according to the Craigslist description. (Read our previous Essential California Burning Man coverage here.) SF Gate

Casting director David Rubin was elected the 35th president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group’s board of governors announced Tuesday. He’s now charged with helping to lead the film industry’s most prestigious institution through the next chapter of its transformation. Los Angeles Times

The biggest recycling store chain in California just closed its doors, shutting down 284 sites throughout the state. Here’s why. Sacramento Bee

Sad pop priestess Lana Del Rey name-checked Fresno in a new song about gun violence, but she will not be making a stop in the Central Valley city on her next tour through California. Fresno Bee

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 82. San Diego: partly sunny, 74. San Francisco: windy, 68. San Jose: sunny, 77. Sacramento: sunny, 90. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Toni Morrison

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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