Forests in a Warming World

from Wildlife Promise

Mountain pine beetles have devastated nearly 7 million acres of pine forests in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota since 1996. And, that pales in comparison to the more than 40 million acres of pines lost in British Columbia. These stunning losses are a major wake-up call about just how rapidly climate change can transform our landscapes and how vulnerable our trees are.

NWF’s recent report Wildlife in a Warming World: Confronting the Climate Crisis details how wildlife and wild places across the nation are already dealing with climate change. As we celebrate the many wonderful ways trees touch our lives and benefit wildlife during this year’s National Wildlife Week, we also take a moment to step back and consider what climate change means for trees today and into the future.

Forests Facing New Climate Challenges

The trees that define the landscape in many parts of the United States are expected to undergo significant range shifts in the decades to come. As temperatures increase and patterns of rain/snow change, many tree species will have to find ways to adjust. And, this means that the birds, mammals, and other wildlife that depend on these forests will also have to adjust, not to mention the livelihoods and communities that are closely tied to the many services provided by the forests.

Here are a few examples of what climate change means for our forests:

  • In the Rockies, forests are facing major changes as a result of droughts, wildfires, and insect outbreaks, all fueled by the warming conditions. More than 6 million acres of pine forest in Colorado and Wyoming alone have been devastated by mountain pine beetle outbreaks, drastically affecting the heart of the region’s tourism industry. The loss of white-bark pine has wildlife managers worried about the impacts on wildlife—including grizzly bears—that depend on pine nuts as an important food source.
  • As the Southwest faces more intense and frequent megadroughts, chances are that we won’t be able to have forests in many of the places they are currently found. A recent study based on tree-ring analysis found that these megadroughts are now happening about 14 percent of the time, up from about 5 percent during the past 1000 years. If we keep polluting at the same rate, the Southwest could be in megadrought conditions 80 percent of the time during the second half of this century.
  • In Alaska, forests are already beginning to encroach on the tundra. Wildlife species that are specifically adapted to tundra conditions are especially at risk. For example the arctic fox is facing new competition from forest-adapted red foxes.
  • Climate change is projected to make parts of the Northwest much less suitable for many of the conifers for which the region is famous. In Washington State, for example, Douglas fir could be lost from over 32 percent of its current range.
  • In the Northeast, spruce-fir forests are expected to recede up mountain slopes as temperatures become too warm for their survival, to be replaced by oak-dominated forests. Eastern hemlock is expected to be lost across most of its U.S. range as warmer winter temperatures allow the destructive hemlock woody aldegid to survive and spread. Many wildlife species rely upon the year-round cover of these evergreen species.

Conservation Approaches Branching Out, Too

Forest and wildlife managers are realizing that our approaches to conservation need to match the new challenges confronting our forests. When making plans for how and where we protect forests, we now need to think about possible shifts in forest ranges, changes in wildfire and pest outbreaks, and the impacts of more heat waves, droughts, and heavy rainfall events.

National Wildlife Federation is helping lead efforts to make conservation efforts climate-smart. For example, in a project to restore Ohio’s Black River, NWF made recommendations about which tree species to plant based on climate model projections of how tree ranges will shift. Our efforts with rural landowners in Alabama have helped them understand the value of longleaf pine as a native species that is more resilient to climate extremes than other pine species.

At the same time, conservationists, city planners, and water managers are looking to trees and forests as a way to increase the resiliency of our communities to climate change. Trees are critical infrastructure for cities and towns, and tree plantings, like those NWF is urging for National Wildlife Week, can help create more shade and reduce the need for air conditioning during heat waves. Healthy forests also help soak up heavy rainfall, reducing the likelihood of downstream floods while providing natural filtration for drinking water.

Don’t Forget Carbon Storage

When it comes to climate change, perhaps the most compelling reason to protect our forests and urban canopies is the crucial role trees play in removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it for a long time. In fact, the regrowth of trees in the Northeast currently offsets about 16 percent of the nation’s carbon pollution from burning coal, oil, and gas.

Trees are a bigger part of the carbon pollution equation than many people realize.  That’s why NWF is working hard to fight deforestation in the Amazon and support forestry programs here at home. And, that’s why we hope that you’ll take a moment to plant a tree (or even better, a LOT of trees!) this year.