Joshua tree and windmills outside the town of Mojave. LA Observed file photo.
The species of yucca known as Joshua trees grow only in the Mojave Desert — one of the ways I pass the time driving up U.S. 395 toward the Eastern Sierra is to watch as the Joshua trees dwindle to just a few, then disappear before you reach the Owens Valley. Turns out that the higher temperatures and declining precipitation of climate change, and now the years of drought in Southern California, are taking a serious toll on the symbolic trees all across the desert. At Joshua Tree National Park, "scientific modeling suggests the trees will lose 90% of their current range in the 800,000-acre park by the end of the century," writes Louis Sahagun in the LA Times.
The species scientists know as Yucca brevifolia isn't actually a tree; it's a succulent. Joshua trees grow to 40 feet high, live more than 200 years and bloom sporadically….They were named for the biblical figure Joshua by members of a band of Mormons traveling through the Cajon Pass back to Utah in 1857. They imagined the trees as shaggy prophets, their outstretched limbs pointing the way to their promised land.
During the 1980s, development in desert boom towns such as Lancaster and Palmdale replaced about 200,000 Joshua trees with housing tracts and shopping centers. Many more were removed over the last decade to make way for renewable energy facilities.
Computer models depicting the distribution of suitable habitat after a roughly 5-degree Fahrenheit rise show Joshua trees retaining just 2% to 10% of their current range, according to studies led by Barrows and published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.
"Since they grow for about 200 years, we won't see massive die-offs in our lifetime," park Superintendent David Smith said. "But we will see less recruitment of new trees."