Climate change is coming for your Christmas tree

When a brutal heat wave hit Oregon in late June, pushing the temperature as high as 117 degrees, one of the casualties was the state’s Christmas tree industry. One farmer, with a field of around 250,000 trees, reported that all of his seedlings had died in the heat. Many older trees were singed and are now brown instead of green. The trees take nine years to grow—and as climate change makes extreme heat much more likely, it’s getting harder for the trees to survive that long.

On another family-run tree farm in the mountains east of Sacramento, California, most seedlings planted last February, in the middle of an extreme drought, had died by July. In August, the massive Caldor wildfire, which burned more than 200,000 acres in the state, reached the farm and destroyed around 40% of the larger trees. Disease is another challenge: A fungus that is likely spreading because of higher temperatures is killing Scotch pines and Fraser firs.

“It’s gotten to the point where we can’t grow certain species that were the most popular species,” says Frans Kok, who owns the Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm in Virginia. The industry—which Kok says is still more concerned about competition from plastic Christmas trees than climate change—isn’t yet doing enough research to understand which other species might be more likely to thrive in the future.

All of this means it’s getting a little harder and more expensive to buy Christmas trees, because fewer are available. (This year, overall supply chain problems are also adding to shortages.) The seedlings killed this year will cause even bigger shortages in eight years, when they would have otherwise been harvested.

A few buyers might turn to different trees; one nonprofit program in San Francisco rents out live trees in nontraditional species that later are planted on city streets to help provide shade and absorb pollution. Others might turn to artificial trees, though making a tree from PVC plastic and shipping it from China just adds to overall emissions; a real tree absorbs carbon as it grows, and if it’s turned into mulch instead of thrown in a landfill after the holidays, the total carbon footprint can be around 10 times less.

Of course, it’s not just a problem for holiday decoration or a handful of farmers, since the challenges faced by Christmas tree farms are echoed in larger forests, where heat, drought, and disease are killing trees, and dead or dying trees are helping large fires become even larger. Huge fires are burning forests so severely that without intervention, new trees can’t grow back, and whole ecosystems could disappear.

But all hope isn’t lost: If countries act quickly and global emissions rapidly drop, the world will see less extreme heat, and conifers will stand a better chance of survival.