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Wilting giants: Arizona's saguaro cacti are collapsing amid record heat

The saguaro cacti of Arizona, iconic symbols of the American West, are succumbing to a relentless barrage of extreme heat, as summer temperatures in the state continue to shatter records. Observations from scientists reveal alarming signs: the towering cacti are leaning, shedding their arms, and in certain instances, entirely collapsing.

Tania Hernandez, a research scientist at Phoenix’s expansive 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden, home to over two-thirds of all cactus species, expressed concern on Tuesday. Hernandez pointed out that the indispensable summer monsoon rains, a vital lifeline for the desert’s vegetation, have disappointingly failed to make their annual appearance. 

This has resulted in an unprecedented survival test for the cacti, not just in the wild expanses of the Arizona desert, but also in the bustling cities like Phoenix.

“These plants are adapted to this heat, but at some point the heat needs to cool down and the water needs to come,” explained Hernandez. 

Extreme heat continues

The extreme weather has persisted at a blistering 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) for a 25-day stretch in Phoenix, raising serious concerns about the future of the saguaro cacti. These magnificent giants can reach heights of over 40 feet (12 meters) and are a testament to nature’s resilience in one of the harshest climates on earth.

At the Desert Botanical Garden, a team of plant physiologists has been diligently studying the heat tolerance of these cacti. It was previously believed that these desert sentinels were ideally equipped to endure high temperatures and severe drought conditions. However, the current heatwave in Arizona is challenging this long-standing assumption.

Full impact on saguaro cacti is unclear

Cacti are uniquely adapted to desert conditions, but even they have their limits. These plants rely on cooler night temperatures and the occasional rain and mist for a break from the scorching heat. Without this essential reprieve, the cacti suffer internal damage. 

“Plants now suffering from prolonged, excessive heat may take months or years to die,” warned Hernandez. This means that the full impact of this relentless heatwave may not be evident immediately, posing an insidious threat to the local ecology.

Living laboratory 

In the heart of the city, Phoenix’s urban cacti are under close observation. This metropolis acts as a heat island, with its concrete and asphalt surfaces absorbing and radiating heat, creating conditions hotter than the surrounding rural areas. 

According to Hernandez, this makes Phoenix an ideal place for studying the potential effects of future climate change on desert flora. The saguaros and other cacti species here serve as a living laboratory, mirroring the higher temperatures that plants in the wild are anticipated to face with the continued progression of climate change.

The plight of the saguaro cacti underscores the far-reaching impact of climate change, and the urgent need for comprehensive actions to mitigate its effects. This issue goes beyond the loss of a species; it signifies a disturbing disruption in the harmony of an ecosystem that evolved over thousands of years. 

The future survival of the saguaro cacti, like many other species around the world, is precariously balanced on the frontline of the global climate crisis.

More about saguaro cacti 

Saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) stand as the emblematic plant of the Sonoran Desert, a symbol of the American Southwest. Known for their large size and distinctive silhouette, they thrive in the arid desert conditions of Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, and the Whipple Mountains and Imperial County areas of California.

Characteristics of saguaro cacti

The saguaro is an impressive specimen, capable of growing upwards of 40 feet (12.19 meters), and in exceptional cases, reaching 60 feet (18.29 meters). The average lifespan of a saguaro cactus is between 150 and 200 years, although some individuals have been documented living over 250 years.

Saguaros possess a thick, waxy skin designed to retain moisture, a crucial adaptation to their desert environment. They boast an extensive root system, primarily composed of shallow roots spread out to absorb rainfall quickly, along with a deep taproot for anchoring the heavy plant and accessing deeper water reserves.

The cactus exhibits a pleated structure, which enables it to expand when it absorbs water and contract during periods of drought. A fully hydrated saguaro can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds (1450-2170 kilograms).

Growth and reproduction

Saguaros are slow-growing plants. In the initial ten years, a saguaro might only grow 1 to 1.5 inches in height. After approximately 75 years, saguaros start to develop their characteristic branches or “arms”. The number and pattern of these arms vary widely among individuals, adding to their uniqueness.

Reproduction occurs through the blossoming of white flowers, which serve as the official state flower of Arizona. The flowers bloom at night during late spring to early summer and close by mid-afternoon. Bats, birds, and insects, particularly the lesser long-nosed bat, play significant roles in the pollination of these flowers.

Fruit develops following successful pollination, maturing as a bright red and pulpy mass. This fruit contains thousands of tiny black seeds, a characteristic feature of the Cactaceae family. The Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona traditionally harvests this fruit.

Ecological role

Saguaro cacti provide an essential contribution to their ecosystem. They act as host plants and supply food to a variety of desert wildlife. Birds such as gila woodpeckers and purple martins often create nests in the cacti, while the fruit and flowers serve as food for numerous animal species.

Conservation and threats

Despite their resilience, saguaro cacti face several threats, including habitat destruction, illegal harvesting, and climate change. Prolonged drought, higher temperatures, and wildfires linked to climate change have significantly impacted the saguaro population.

Saguaros receive protection under the Arizona Native Plant Law. The Saguaro National Park, located in Pima County, Arizona, is a significant reserve dedicated to the preservation of these majestic cacti.

Cultural significance

Saguaros hold a significant place in the culture and lore of the indigenous peoples of the region, including the Tohono O’odham and the Pima. Their towering presence on the landscape also makes them popular in photographs and artwork, embodying the spirit of the American Southwest.

In summary, saguaro cacti, with their towering height, distinctive form, and ability to endure the harsh desert environment, are a testament to the tenacity of life. They not only play a vital role in their ecosystem but also represent a significant cultural symbol, making their conservation all the more critical.


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