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Drought Impacts in the Southeast

Dr. Kelby Fite, Arboricultural Researcher, Bartlett Tree Experts


2016 began with normal moisture in most areas of the Southeastern U.S. However, as the year progressed, drought conditions worsened. By year-end over a third of the Southeast had reached Extreme or Exceptional drought levels. The drought, combined with record high temperatures, has been devastating to landscapes and urban forests. It has been particularly damaging to transplants and mature trees. Even after rainfall returns to the area, trees will continue to feel the effects of this drought far into the future. Unfortunately, the tree declines we have seen in landscapes over the past few years may continue for years to come.

Plants require water for many primary functions of their existence: photosynthesis, cell expansion, nutrient uptake, various chemical reactions, etc. When water is a limiting factor, trees are forced to use precious carbohydrate reserves to compensate. Doing so places trees in a weakened and more susceptible state. This means they have less ability to defend themselves against insect and disease organisms that look to take advantage of their compromised condition.

Even with the return of rain, the problems triggered by drought will persist. Trees that have been weakened and invaded by pests may not show symptoms immediately. This is because of the vast amount of energy that is stored within a tree, the use of which can delay the onset of stress symptoms. These trees may begin or continue to decline even though there may be an abundance of water available due to stress caused by this drought. Trees are extremely large organisms that are remarkably resilient, but symptoms from drought stress will still manifest for many years. With this in mind, continue to monitor the health of your trees and provide them with the best possible chance to recover from the stress they have been under. Strategies to aid in recovery include proper irrigation, mulching, soil nutrient management, pruning, and pest management.