This Summer’s Pacific Northwest Heat Wave Roasted the Christmas Tree Crop

This Summer’s Pacific Northwest Heat Wave Roasted the Christmas Tree Crop
Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP, Getty Images

Climate change is the latest combatant in the war on Christmas. This summer’s record-smashing heat wave in the Pacific Northwest was an all-out assault on Christmas trees, and the impacts could reverberate not just this winter but for years to come.

Oregon is the epicentre of the Christmas tree industry, which blends farming and forestry. Growers there harvest nearly 5 million trees, according to data from Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. (Washington chips in another half-million or so.) The farms in the region, though, were hit hard by the triple-digit heat in late June that melted infrastructure and cooked 1 billion sea creatures alive.

“Most Christmas trees are planted on fields that are not irrigated,” Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University’s extension service, said. “The trees have to survive the summer with just whatever soil moisture is available.”

Those trees, largely grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, already found moisture in short supply; their roots plumbed soil in severe drought, according to date from the Drought Monitor. The heat wave supercharged drought conditions even further, with extreme drought gripping the value by late July.

However, the freakishly high temperatures and searing sun took an even greater toll. The heat and low humidity essentially pulled what little moisture was left in the soil and the trees’ needles out. Trees with later-breaking buds, particularly noble fir, saw their fresh foliage singe and turn brown. South-facing foliage was heavily damaged in some locations. For seedlings planted in spring, the hot, dry conditions obliterated much of the crop. Noble fir, which is the most common variety of Christmas tree sold in the U.S., were particularly hard hit. Landgren estimates that 70% of seedlings were essentially cooked to death.

The one-two punch means that farmers this year have had smaller crops; Marketplace reported that up to 10% of the Pacific Northwest’s mature trees were damaged. Doug Hundley, a seasonal spokesperson at the National Christmas Tree Association, told the outlet that trees could be up to 10% higher in price as a result. Eight years down the road — when this year’s saplings are supposed to come to maturity — farmers could see even fewer trees.

Landgren said farmers are always working on ways to improve trees’ health. This summer, they used woodchips around the base of trees and cover crops between rows to try and keep various fir species healthy in the challenging conditions.

“The activity that seemed to be the most effective was putting woodchips at the base of the seedlings just as they were planted,” he said. “If you put about 3 inches of woodchips around 12 inches around the tree, that scene, we had a 20% improvement of survival. And of all of the things we tested, the woodchips were the most effective and the cheapest to do.”

Other varieties of trees also proved to be more resistant to the heat. Nordmann and Turkish firs saw some damage but not on the level of noble fir. And Douglas fir, which are native to the region, saw “little to no damage overall,” according to an assessment by Oregon State. Landgren said some farmers are also experimenting with fall plants instead of spring, allowing seedlings more time to get acclimated to life outside the nursery. And nurseries themselves will have to work with farmers, coordinating what types of trees they grow to handle the hotter future. That type of work will be needed to save what, Landgren said, is among the state’s top 11 or 12 crops and “a big part of rural counties.” And this year’s die-off also reveals how far-reaching climate change’s impacts go, with one fossil fuel-boosted heat wave leaving years of damage behind in its wake.