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Only the Hardiest Trees Can Survive Today’s Urban Inferno

In a rapidly warming world, cities need more tree cover to stay cool—but only certain species can handle soaring temperatures, and often they aren’t native species.
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Last fall, I invited a stranger into my yard.

Manzanita, with its peeling red bark and delicate pitcher-shaped blossoms, thrives on the dry, rocky ridges of Northern California. The small evergreen tree or shrub is famously drought-tolerant, with some varieties capable of enduring more than 200 days between waterings. And yet here I was, gently lowering an 18-inch variety named for botanist Howard McMinn into the damp soil of Tacoma, a city in Washington known for its towering Douglas firs, big-leaf maples, and an average of 152 rainy days per year.

It’s not that I’m a thoughtless gardener. Some studies suggest that the Seattle area’s climate will more closely resemble Northern California’s by 2050, so I’m planting that region’s trees, too.

Climate change is scrambling the seasonswreaking havoc on trees. Some temperate and high-altitude regions will grow more humid, which can lead to lethal rot. In other temperate zones, drier springs and hotter summers are disrupting annual cycles of growth, damaging root systems, and rendering any survivors more vulnerable to pests.

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Dead larch trees, a result of bark beetle infestation, stand amidst a city forest in Hagen, Germany. In addition to pests, high temperatures and drought have created stress for the native forest.PHOTOGRAPH: JONAS GÜTTLER/GETTY IMAGES
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Dead Joshua trees in the eastern Mojave Desert as seen in 2022. Scientists say that climate change will likely kill virtually all of California’s iconic Joshua trees by the end of the century.PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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