New study shows many Eastern tree species will not be able to adapt to climate change

Climate change is expected to alter the distribution of eastern tree species, but some of the most vulnerable will not be able to keep up with the shifting conditions, according to a new study by researchers at Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC).

The majority of the tree species examined in the new study were found to be vulnerable to climate change in the 21st century. Species most at risk are Balsam Fir, Quaking Aspen, and others associated with northern spruce-fir and hardwood forests. Iconic trees such as Eastern Hemlock and Sugar Maple will also see significant changes in distribution within the next several decades. The most vulnerable trees, however, will not be able to migrate quickly enough without active human intervention.

“Trees, after all, cannot walk,” said WHRC scientist Brendan Rogers, the lead author on the paper. “They must disperse seeds that, in turn, establish, grow, and reproduce. The pace of climate change threatens to rapidly overtake this migration, and landscapes fragmented by humans present even more challenges.”

On a positive note, some species and landscapes stuck out as resilient to climate change, including southern oaks and hickories, and relatively intact forests of the central Appalachian foothills.

In their paper, recently published in Global Change Biology, WHRC scientists accounted for all of these factors by modeling changes in habitat suitability for 40 tree species across the eastern United States, combining this with information on how species can migrate in fragmented landscapes. Their results provide a new way of looking at vulnerability. The authors of the study, “Vulnerability of eastern US tree species to climate change,” developed high-resolution maps aimed at informing resource managers.

The research was conducted to help National Park managers develop appropriate strategies for climate change mitigation. The scientists studied the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

“National parks have historically been managed to achieve pre-European ecological conditions, but that’s not realistic anymore,” Rogers said. “Park managers understand they must manage the ecological integrity of their forests and make tough decisions about how to spend limited resources in a constantly evolving environment. Climate change will fundamentally alter these ecosystems. We’re developing the tools to help managers decide what to prioritize and what to look out for.”

Drs. Patrick Jantz and Scott Goetz, both former WHRC scientists who are now at Northern Arizona University, were co-authors on the paper.

WHRC studies climate change causes, impacts, and solutions—with a particular focus on forests, soils, rivers, and land use change. WHRC was founded in 1985, and its headquarters are located in Falmouth, Massachusetts. WHRC has been named the world’s top-ranked climate change think tank for three years in a row by the International Center for Climate Governance in Venice, Italy.

WHRC is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.