Long-Term Tree Cover Dynamics in a Pinyon-Juniper Woodland: Climate-Change-Type Drought Resets Successional Clock

Michael J. Clifford, Neil S. Cobb, Michaela Buenemann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Woody vegetation has expanded in coverage over the past century in many places globally, exemplified by pinyon-juniper changes in the Southwestern United States. Extreme drought is one of the few non-management drivers besides fire that might reverse such cover changes, but this has not been well documented. Here, we assess 68 years of tree cover dynamics across an elevation gradient of a pinyon-juniper woodland using aerial photographs (1936 and 1959) and QuickBird imagery (2004). Canopy cover increased 32% from 1936 to the onset of a major drought (2002). The largest relative increase in canopy cover occurred from 1936 to 1959 at the higher elevations, but these gains were eliminated by fires occurring from 1959 to 2002, during which time lower elevations with low canopy cover exhibited the greatest relative increases. The 2002-2004 drought reduced canopy cover by 55%, which eliminated gains in cover that occurred since 1936. Relative tree cover loss was highest at low elevations with low tree cover, but absolute tree cover loss was greater in areas of high tree cover, which increased with elevation. The loss of more than half of the canopy cover during a 2-year drought period was much greater than losses due to fire or possible increases due to historic land use (for example, grazing). These results suggest that regional-scale climatic influences may be more important than land use legacies in controlling tree cover of these and perhaps other semiarid woodlands over longer time scales-notable given that similar episodes of tree mortality are projected in coming decades with climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)949-962
Number of pages14
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2011


  • QuickBird
  • aerial photographs
  • climate change
  • die-off
  • drought
  • elevation gradient
  • fire
  • grazing
  • mortality
  • pinyon-juniper woodland expansion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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