13 March 2015
In May 2011, a postdoctoral student at Los Alamos National Laboratory named Park Williams set out to predict the future of the dominant iconic conifers of the American Southwest — the Douglas fir, the piñon pine and the ponderosa pine. As the planet warms, the Southwest is projected to dry out and heat up unusually fast — few places will be more punishing to trees. Williams couldn't rely on climate models, whose representations of terrestrial vegetation remain crudely unspecific. He needed a formula that could accurately weigh the variables of heat, aridity and precipitation, and translate atmospheric projections into a unified measure of forest health.
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