Last Updated on August 1, 2023

August 1st, 2023 — The relentless and record-breaking heat wave in Arizona is unleashing its wrath on even the most resilient denizens of the desert landscape.

Among the unlikely victims of this scorching onslaught are the majestic saguaro cacti, iconic giants of the Sonoran Desert, which are collapsing and shedding arms under the oppressive and unrelenting intensity of the heat.

A large saguaro cactus collapses under the weight of the extreme heat in Arizona.
A large saguaro cactus collapses under the weight of the extreme heat in Arizona.

Saguaros are renowned for their incredible longevity, capable of enduring for hundreds of years. Yet, even these time-tested giants are not impervious to the far-reaching effects of climate change.

As the temperatures soar, they are facing the harsh reality of overheating and dehydration, factors that have become all too familiar in this increasingly hot and arid environment, ultimately culminating in their tragic collapse.

The cacti are literally suffocating,” expressed Kimberly McCue, chief science officer at the esteemed Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, with an air of concern etched across her face. “In this extreme heat, they find themselves unable to open their pores at night to cool down, and as a consequence, they are left to bake under the relentless sun.”

For Phoenix, the epicenter of this heat wave, 2023 has seen an unprecedented 22 days registering 110 degrees or higher on the thermometer, pushing the boundaries of what was once considered merely extreme heat.

Additionally, the city has had to endure unusually warm overnight temperatures, presenting yet another challenge for the already struggling cacti population in their attempt to recover from the sweltering days.

The warm nights are really the killer,” observed Kevin Hultine, director of research at the Desert Botanical Garden. “Without the chance to cool down during the night, these saguaros are facing an uphill battle in their battle for survival.”

Cacti dying amid record Arizona heat. CBS Philadelphia.

However, the consequences of this heat wave extend beyond saguaros, encompassing other desert plants as well.

Earlier this year, scientists had already showned concern about the health of native desert shrubs and trees in the Southwest. A study published in Functional Ecology found that piñon pines and juniper trees are being stressed by the combination of rising temperatures and prolonged droughts as a result of climate change.

Palo verde trees, known for their vibrant yellow flowers, are succumbing to the hostile climate, shedding leaves and branches under the strain. Ocotillo, those enigmatic spiny shrubs adorned with fiery red flowers, are not faring any better and are exhibiting signs of stress due to the extreme conditions.

The high temperatures are wreaking havoc on the plants’ water retention mechanisms, causing them to lose water at an accelerated rate, severely exacerbating their vulnerability to pest infestations and diseases.

Some plants are enduring such extreme heat that it is, quite literally, causing them to cook from the inside out—a slow and painful demise in the face of an unyielding climate.

This alarming scenario is merely a foreshadowing of what the future may hold, as experts predict that such extreme heat waves will become increasingly common as the climate continues to change.

For the cacti and other desert flora, the prospects look grim as they attempt to adapt to the rising temperatures and prolonged heat waves.

The cacti are our canaries in the coal mine,” McCue asserted passionately. “They are sounding the alarm, telling us that our environment is undergoing significant transformations, and they are urging us to take immediate and decisive action.

The situation unfolding in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert serves as a poignant reminder of the urgent need to address climate change and its far-reaching consequences. As the heat wave continues its merciless march, the survival of these cherished saguaros and other iconic desert plants hangs in the balance, their fate intertwined with the actions—or inactions—of humanity in the face of a rapidly changing world.

Read also: There is Nothing “Normal” About the Heatwave in Phoenix This Summer


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