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An American tragedy: why are millions of trees dying across the country?
JB Friday hacked at a rain-sodden tree with a small axe, splitting open a part of the trunk. The wood was riven with dark stripes, signs of a mysterious disease that has ravaged the US’s only rainforests – and just one of the plagues that are devastating American forests across the west.
Friday, a forest ecologist at the University of Hawaii, started getting calls from concerned landowners in Puna, which is on the eastern tip of Hawaii’s big island, in 2010. Their seemingly ubiquitous ohi’a trees were dying at an astonishing rate. The leaves would turn yellow, then brown, over just a few weeks – a startling change for an evergreen tree.
“It was like popcorn – pop, pop, pop, pop, one tree after another,” Friday said. “At first people were shocked, now they are resigned.
“It’s heartbreaking. This is the biggest threat to our native forests that any of us have seen. If this spreads across the whole island, it could collapse the whole native ecosystem.”
Almost six years later and nearly 50,000 acres of native forest on the big island are infected with rapid ohi’a death disease. Rumors abound as to its origin: did it emerge from Hawaii’s steaming volcanoes? A strange new insect? Scientists still aren’t sure of where it came from or how to treat it.
Lisa Keith, researcher in plant pathology at the US Department of Agriculture, said that when she analyzed the disease “right away Dutch elm disease popped into my head”. But this was unlike anything she, or anyone else, had ever dealt with.
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