The death toll in Texas has surpassed 300 million, and the victims are some of the state’s oldest and quietest, with names like Oak, Pecan, Ash, and Mesquite.
The drought that has ravaged the tree population since 2011 is showing no signs of reprieve, and since the damage is largely retroactive, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to this deadly trend.
The Morbid Cycle
Ironically, this endless cycle of destruction is in part perpetuated by the efficient nature of the trees themselves. Trees accumulate food reserves during one growing season and store them for the next. If what they are storing lacks the proper nutrients to promote growth or contains some corruption brought on by extreme conditions, the food store becomes tainted.
Leaves wilt, buds become sterile, limbs atrophy and rot. The lack of water ushers in a gruesome succession of starvation and decay, bequeathed from one torrid summer to the next. But lack of water is not the only problem.
If it was just a matter of irrigation, a solution might be achieved through engineering skill and a little ingenuity.
But according to extension forestry specialist Dr. Eric Taylor, drought is just a conduit for a more unmanageable problem. Dr. Taylor says the number of trees that die directly from dehydration is relatively small. Over time dehydration leaves trees susceptible to scavenger pathogens like hypoxylon canker. This fungus produces ulcer-like regions of dead matter that quickly spread across trunk and branch.
Growths erupt and sapwood is devoured. One cannot look at a tree ravaged with hypoxylon canker and not be reminded of a sublime human condition that has confounded medical science in perpetuity.
But unlike cancer, some organisms actually thrive under the sickness of drought.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beetles
Dying hardwood trees are defenseless hosts for the pine bark engraver beetle and other burrowing weevils attracted by the smell of putrefied sap and decaying wood.
They bore Y-shaped tunnels into the tree’s fetid flesh to lay eggs by the millions, or feast on the roots thereby cutting off what little nutrients the trees are getting. There’s no stopping it.
Bark beetles have taken up permanent residence among the trees of Texas, and we are like hapless bystanders in witness of a brutal assault.
What to Do
All we can do is take a wait-and-see approach. Given one more dry season, this Texas drought will be the worst in history.
The state hasn’t seen conditions like this since the year George Washington was inaugurated, so modern day scientists are inclined to call this drought unprecedented. Three thousand dead and counting, and all we can do is watch while nature runs its suicidal course.