This open-access paper provides more science that supports thinning projects. As important as the findings are, it’s common sense that thinning is a positive: Fewer trees competing for water = more water in soils and watersheds. Granted, this study looked at conditions during an unprecedented drought in 2021. The principles apply during average summers, too, in arid regions. What’s more, thinning reduces competition for light and nutrients.
Regional droughts are now widespread and are projected to further increase. Semi-arid ponderosa pine forests across the western USA, which occupy > 56 million ha, are experiencing unprecedented levels of drought due to the currently ongoing North American megadrought. Using unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) thermal images and ground-based hyperspectral data, here we show that ponderosa pine forest canopy temperatures increased during the 2021 summer drought up to 34.6 °C, far above a typical canopy temperature when ponderosa pine trees no longer uptake carbon. We infer that much of the western US ponderosa pine forests likely served as a net carbon source rather than a sink during the 2021 summer drought period. We also demonstrate that regional forest restoration thinning significantly reduced the drought impacts. Thinned ponderosa pine forests had significantly lower increase in canopy temperature and canopy water stress during the drought period compared to the non-thinned forest stands. Furthermore, our extensive soil moisture network data indicate that available soil moisture in the thinned forest was significantly greater at all soil depths of 25 cm, 50 cm, and 100 cm compared to the non-thinned forest, where soil moisture dry-down in the spring started significantly earlier and stayed dry for one month longer causing critical water stress for trees. Forest restoration thinning benefits that are otherwise unappreciated during average precipitation years are significantly amplified during unprecedented drought periods.