Drought Affects Kansas Trees

Extreme drought causes early onset of fall color; resource damage expected

The Kansas drought is impacting all native habitat elements, including those normally most resistant – trees. Currently, more than 88 percent of the state falls into “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, causing visible damage and unusual conditions in timber resources. Onset of fall color is at least a month early, and many weakened trees may die over the next few years.

Katie Dhungel, District Forester based in Iola for the Kansas State Forest Service, is receiving numerous calls about residential and forest trees. “The color we’re seeing right now is an indication that trees are suffering. It’s actually somewhat muted compared to real fall color. Some trees are simply scorched with leaves turning brown. In others, drought has caused an abnormal early shutdown, so that secondary leaf pigments are simulating fall color.”

Making matters worse, recent rains have reversed this confused growth cycle in some locations, so that new leaves are actually shooting out. New growth may not have time to mature and harden against coming cold weather, which will further weaken the trees.

A return to more normal precipitation will help, but drought-damaged trees will be vulnerable to insect and disease problems. Tree mortality will certainly occur, with native trees like hackberry, maples, and oaks on sunny, exposed hillsides most at risk. Should the drought continue, tree damage will be worse.

“I expect a lot of calls early next year,” says Dhungel. The worst drought-stricken trees will probably try to leaf out and then die in early summer.”

All of Kansas is affected, though current tree problems are most noticeable in the state’s eastern third, where trees are abundant. Hardest-hit areas are the southern half of this region, with slightly-better soil moisture conditions occurring north and east.