Why Do Trees Die?

December 30, 2020

Trees are amazing creatures that can withstand even the harshest conditions. And even though the weather in the Northwest is fairly ideal for trees, there are still a variety of factors that can damage a tree, or lead to its death.

We may not think about trees dying because they live for so long and do withstand harsh conditions, but just like any other living being, trees eventually die. But what factors lead to their death?

Here is a quick breakdown of why a tree would naturally die:

  • Photosynthesis stops or is interrupted.
  • Factors necessary for photosynthesis (sunlight, water, nutrients, temperature) are obstructed.
  • Because photosynthesis has stopped, the tree is no longer producing carbohydrates, and stored carbohydrates are used.
  • Without carbohydrates, a tree can no longer respirate, which is the process of using oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  • When a tree can no longer respirate, it will die.

Five Factors That Can Cause a Tree to Die

Environmental Factors

The condition of the ground soil and weather are two of the biggest environmental factors that can cause a tree to die. Water, soil, light, and oxygen are essential for trees to survive, so if the tree isn’t getting these from either the environment above or the soil below, then the tree will eventually die. Drought can prevent the tree from getting enough water, poorly draining soils or salty soil can prevent the roots from getting the proper nutrients, and extreme sun or cold weather can stress the tree, eventually leading to death.


Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, oak wilt, and anthracnose are some of the most common tree diseases. The disease causes pathogens to invade the tree’s leaves, roots, and bark, eventually damaging its vascular system. Oftentimes disease will spread from one tree to surrounding trees, resulting in whole patches or even forests of trees to die.


Insects like pine beetles, gypsy moths, and emerald ash borers can cause significant damage to trees. Insects generally infest a tree that is already struggling with stress from disease or environmental factors. They can eat away at the bark of the tree, bore into the tree for nesting, or eat the tree’s leaves. When the infestation is severe enough, the entire canopy can be removed, which will lead to a tree’s death.

Catastrophic Events

The west coast has been devastated in recent years by forest fires, the southeast coast has been exposed to hurricanes, and tornadoes can cause significant damage to areas in the central United States. These types of events can quickly remove trees from yards or whole forests. In many cases, however, the trees are stressed after an event to the point of death, whether from root damage from floods or high winds, broken limbs, or the tree isn’t getting enough oxygen after its leaves are blown away.

Old Age

As we discussed above, trees that die naturally, or of old age, is a process that occurs in stages and oftentimes over the course of years. Trees are capable of compartmentalizing: a limb is damaged so it stops sending nutrients to that part of the tree. This allows a majority of the tree to continue living, but it also begins the slow process of dying. Over time, the tree will be unable to support itself due to a lack of foliage for hydration and food.

Death is never a happy subject, even when talking about trees. But if you have an old tree on your property, focus on the benefits that the tree has provided throughout its life, from shade to beauty and a home for wildlife.

At Apex Tree Experts, we are passionate about protecting the health of your trees. We offer tree trimming services to ensure the tree is able to grow and thrive, we can provide advice about diseased trees and insect infestations, and when the time comes, we offer tree removal services. We can even make sure that the dead tree continues to serve a purpose by providing you with tree rounds or wood chips that can be used throughout your landscape.

Apex Tree Experts is a family-owned business located in Gig Harbor, Washington, and we serve the greater Tacoma area. If you have any questions about trees on your residential or commercial property, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.