- Author: Rob York
Adapting to climate change: Forests will try, but they can’t do it on their own
Article reviewed: Forest responses to climate change in the northwestern United States: Ecophysiological foundations for adaptive management
By D.J. Chmura, P.D. Anderson, G.T. Howe, C.A. Harrington, J.E. Halofsky, D.L. Peterson, D.C. Shaw, and J.B. St. Clair Published in the journal, Forest Ecology and Management (Vol. 261: 1121-1142).
The plot line: This is a review of the likely and potential effects that climate change will have on the physiology of trees in the western US. The authors discuss how these effects might influence forests at larger scales and also discuss the degree to which forests might be able to adapt to a changing climate. They focus on a changing snowpack and drought stress as important stresses that may lead to changing fire regimes and forest pest interactions. While significant impacts appear certain, they also note the tremendous uncertainty in predicting the details of how impacts will play out. They conclude that forests will not be able to adapt without management intervention. The recommended management actions that may help vulnerable forests adapt to climate change include density management, planting, and assisted migration.
Relevant quote: “Overall, density management should be the most effective [silvicultural] approach because of its ability to lessen drought stress, fire risk, and predisposition to insects and disease.”
Relevance to landowners and stakeholders:
If forest landowners are anything like me, they go through ups and downs when it comes to worrying about how climate change might influence their forest. For forest managers, it is arguably their responsibility to think in long time frames so it is therefore their responsibility to think about how climate change might influence the forests they manage. But landowners may not have that same incentive to think longer-term. I admit that sometimes my time frame only extends to the time at which I think I am going to sell the land or when I will no longer be able to physically work on it. This tends to make me rather blasé when it comes to worrying about climate change effects. But even for those like me that suffer this periodic short-sightedness, this review reminds readers that it is wise to address climate change impacts now. The uncertainty and complexity of how climate change will affect forests are frankly overwhelming. This review includes how climate change might influence factors of how forests grow:
- Carbon dioxide concentration (going to go up)
- Temperature (going to go up)
- Precipitation (not sure where it’s going)
- Drought (going to be more common and longer)
- Wildfire (going to be more frequent and severe, but might go down after a while)
- Insects and diseases (going to emerge in new locations and intensities)
Those are just 6 factors that we know are going to change (in uncertain ways), but there are probably more. Sometimes we can consider one factor individually and make a scientific guess about how it will affect forests. But the reality is that these factors will be interacting with each other to affect forests in completely uncertain ways. We really have no clue what the exact effects will be or how long they will take to occur. But we do know they will be a big deal socially, economically, and ecologically. As I’ve reviewed in previous posts, active adaptive management is really the only realistic management response to such a foreboding reality.
Relevance to managers:
True to the title of the paper, the review focused on the foundations for adaptive management so there are not many actual management recommendations. I think these are the primary foundations which can be drawn upon from this review with respect to constructing adaptive management plans:
- Inter-breeding populations are the scale at which plants can adapt, so management decisions are ideally done at a fairly local level
- The regeneration phase of trees is the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change
- The abiotic changes that will most likely either directly or indirectly influence forests are drought stress, a shrinking snowpack, and an earlier timing of snow melt (I am thinking mostly of dry montane forests here)
- We have already seen climate change interact with existing pests to result in unpredicted epidemics (i.e. mountain pine beetles). Expect more of the same.
The authors very briefly suggest the following as possible management responses:
- Density management. Thinning forests makes individual trees more resistant to drought stress
- Planting. Because the regeneration phase is most vulnerable to failure
- Assisted migration. It was confusing, but I believe their emphasis was on within-species range migration
- Forest stand triage. Foresters should think of the different seral stages and structures that they manage for, and then consider which of these might be most vulnerable to climate change. For example, forests that have reserves where density is very high and fuel is also very high could be the most vulnerable. Because of the vulnerability of the seedling stage to changes in climate, young stands (or those in an understory re-initiation phase) might also be especially vulnerable.
Critique (I always have one, no matter how good the article is):
The management recommendations were not as thorough as I was hoping. They provided very detailed reviews of how climate change might influence forests differently in different parts of the western states. But management recommendations were not given with anywhere near the same level of detail. Assisted migration, molecular and genetic breeding, and gene conservation were mentioned as possible strategies. Given that many folks are very skeptical of these types of intervention (in my experience, some people think assisted migration is a capital offense), it would have been useful to provide some examples or perhaps bounds on how they should be used given the range of plausible ecophysiological responses to climate change.