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The first 10 months of 2012 were the warmest on record in the continental United States. Along with the heat wave came widespread drought, which still persists in the Southwest. Forests have been among the victims of that drought, and now scientists who study forests say they've discovered something disturbing about the way prolonged drought affects trees. NPR's Christopher Joyce has more on that story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: When drought dries out the soil, a tree has to suck harder. And that can actually be dangerous, because sucking harder increases the risk of drawing air bubbles up into the plumbing. Plant scientist Brendan Choat explains.

BRENDAN CHOAT: And so as drought stress increases, you have more and more gas accumulating in the plumbing system until they can't get any water up to the leaves. This is really bad news for the plant, because it's like having an embolism in a human blood vessel.

JOYCE: Like a human embolism, the gas bubbles stop the flow. If that persists, it means thirst, starvation and eventually death.

Choat is from the University of Western Sydney in Australia, which has seen years of record-breaking drought. He wondered: How much drought does it take before trees start choking on air bubbles? He and a team of researchers studied 226 species of trees around the world - desert trees, rainforest trees, all kinds. And they discovered that for most, it doesn't take much drought at all.

CHOAT: This is the key thing, that it would only take a small shift in terms of the moisture environment, the temperature to push these plants across the threshold.

JOYCE: The threshold between drinking and choking. It's very slim. The reason is trees have to finely balance eating and drinking. To eat, they take in carbon dioxide through openings in their leaves. But the more they eat, the more water they lose through those openings. Lose too much, and they start sucking harder and risk a deadly embolism.

Choat's research, in the journal Nature, shows that it doesn't take much drought before trees start to self-destruct. But what about trees that have evolved to live in really hot, dry places? They're sippers, not gulpers, right? Plant scientists like Bettina Engelbrecht figured they'd have a larger margin of safety before they choke.

BETTINA ENGELBRECHT: Instead, we find, well, it's all the same. Everyone is right at the edge and has a very risky strategy.

JOYCE: Engelbrecht, at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, studies rainforest trees.

ENGELBRECHT: Now we have to worry about all of them. We have to really deal with the problem at the global scale.

JOYCE: Worry because temperatures are rising around the globe. That makes drought more likely and more intense. Big droughts have hit southern Europe, Russia, Australia and the U.S. in recent years. Nathan McDowell is a plant scientist at the government's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He actually puts trees under plastic to see how they deal with less water and more heat. He says trees are adaptable, up to a point.

NATHAN MCDOWELL: Now we're changing that climate range really fast, faster than any of the living plants here have experienced. So can they change fast enough to adapt to that? You know, the preponderance of evidence right now is saying that lots of locations around the world, they're not adapting fast enough.

JOYCE: When they don't adapt, they stop growing. Beetles and other insects invade. If droughts last long enough, the forests just die and get replaced with something else.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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