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Trees regularly wring bedrock for a life-sustaining drink of water

Trees -- like the oak pictured rooting into bedrock in Austin, Texas -- manage to squeeze far more water out of bedrock than previously thought, according to new research. Photo by Erica McCormick/University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences
Trees -- like the oak pictured rooting into bedrock in Austin, Texas -- manage to squeeze far more water out of bedrock than previously thought, according to new research. Photo by Erica McCormick/University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences

Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Water trapped in bedrock is a vital resource for trees across the country -- a resource tapped by tree roots more often than previously thought, according to a new study.

For a century, scientists have known trees to be capable of wringing bedrock for a drink. However, it was long assumed trees turned to rock moisture only in the most dire of circumstances, like during a prolonged drought.

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The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggests trees regularly drink water trapped in bedrock.

Because trees provide vital carbon capture and sequestration services -- in addition to food and shelter for thousands of species across the globes -- forest conservation is an essential component of climate change mitigation.

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As such, the authors of the latest study insist ecologists account for rock moisture when modeling the impacts of climate change on forests.

"With droughts intensifying, bedrock could be as key to understanding our forests as soils," study co-author Daniella Rempe, a hydrologist and assistant professor at the University of Texas, said in a press release.

Until recently, bedrock-embedded tree roots were mostly a curiosity. And while the phenomenon has inspired a number of field studies in recent years, its prevalence was unclear.

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For the new research, scientists combined findings from relevant field studies with public data on precipitation and evaporation rates in Texas and California.

Scientists identified trees using bedrock water in 24% of forests and shrubland.

At six sites in California and two in Central Texas, trees sourced half their water from rock moisture. Data from field studies showed bedrock held significantly more water than soil.

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Now that scientists know bedrock water usage isn't rare, the study's authors hope further investigations will provide new insights into how and when trees access rock moisture.

"We have much left to explore," said lead author Erica McCormick, a research assistant in the Rempe lab. "We have tools for investigating and describing soil processes, but we need data and experiments to tell us how to treat bedrock."

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