Climate change expected to alter vast landscapes

A new four-year study of Western forests shows a dramatic change is in the works in tree species, due to climate change, insect attacks, disease and fire.

Many species that were once able to survive and thrive, such as lodgepole pine, are losing their competitive footholds, and newcomers such as western hemlock or Douglas-fir could push them out, the study shows. Other areas may shift completely out of forest into grass savannah or sagebrush desert. In central California, researchers concluded that more than half of the species now present would not be expected to persist in the climate conditions of the future. 

'Some of these changes are already happening, pretty fast and in some huge areas,' said Richard Waring, professor emeritus at Oregon State University and lead study author. 'The forests of our future are going to look quite different.'

'Ecosystems are always changing at the landscape level, but normally the rate of change is too slow for humans to notice,' said Steven Running, the University of Montana Regents Professor and a co-author of the study. 'Now the rate of change is fast enough we can see it.' 

This survey used emote sensing of large areas to compare 15 coniferous tree species found across much of the West.

It projected which tree species would be at highest risk of disturbance in a future that's expected to be 5 to 9 degrees warmer by 2080, with perhaps more precipitation in the winter and spring and less in the summer.

  Among the findings: 

•Many wilderness areas are among those at risk of the greatest changes. 

•Mild, wetter areas of western Oregon and Washington will face less overall species change than areas of the West with a harsher climate. 

•Some of the greatest shifts in tree species are expected to occur in British Columbia, Alberta, and California. 

•Conditions have become more favorable for outbreaks of diseases and insects. 

The study can be found at:

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