Temperature has a profound influence on plant and animal development, but its effects on stem cell behavior and activity remain poorly understood. Here, we characterize the responses of the Arabidopsis root to chilling (low but above-freezing) temperature. Chilling stress at 4°C leads to DNA damage predominantly in root stem cells and their early descendants. However, only newly generated/differentiating columella stem cell daughters (CSCDs) preferentially die in a programmed manner. Inhibition of the DNA damage response in these CSCDs prevents their death but makes the stem cell niche more vulnerable to chilling stress. Mathematical modeling and experimental validation indicate that CSCD death results in the re-establishment of the auxin maximum in the quiescent center (QC) and the maintenance of functional stem cell niche activity under chilling stress. This mechanism improves the root's ability to withstand the accompanying environmental stresses and to resume growth when optimal temperatures are restored.