Climate Change - Forest Impact

Like so many other aspects of the environment, forests are also very vulnerable to climate change. Aside from climatic factors, the specific effects on forests in the United States and other parts of the world will also depend on stress from pollution, forest management practices, public demand for timber, and several other variables. The effects of climate change on forests will likely include changes in overall forest health and productivity, as well as changes in the geographic range in which certain species of trees can be found. Over time these effects can change the way timber is produced as well as change the shape of outdoor activities, affect water quality, and directly impact wildlife as well as rates of carbon storage.

Changes in forest temperature and precipitation are expected to eventually change forest composition, location, and even productivity. It is believed that climate change can encourage the migration of tree species, which results in the geographical layout of our forests being altered, and new combinations of tree species coexisting in new habitats. It is believed that many tree species may shift further north to higher elevations in North America.

Experiments conducted by Free-Air Co2 Enrichment (FACE) have suggested that the growth rate of trees may increase in environments with increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. However, these effects are expected to diminish over time as the trees adapt to the higher levels of CO2.

In trees and soils, the same climate change effects that impact tree growth will also change rates of carbon storage (sequestration). An increase of carbon sequestration would in effect remove more CO2 from the atmosphere, while carbon losses would result in an increase of atmospheric CO2.

Other changes such as fire or disease could also potentially impact the future of forests in the United States, as well as impact businesses that rely on products derived from forests like timber. An increase in temperature can result in dryer forest conditions, making forest fires an exponentially more likely occurrence. A change in climate could also facilitate a rapid increase of diseases and pestilence which could harm tree species. While this would not necessarily impact the timber industry (there are timber salvage operations for those situations), it would definitely affect the forest itself.

According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), climate change is expected to be responsible for a modest increase of global forest growth over the next century (in the vicinity of 10-20%). However, they point out that increased vulnerability of forests to the growing potential for extreme scenarios makes the future uncertain. They acknowledge that wild fires and insect outbreaks are likely to intensify in warmer climates with drier soils and increasingly longer seasons. Not only is the typical forest fire season expected to lengthen, but the area of forest that is considered susceptible to forest fire is expected to grow. They also note that the long-term effects of forest fire will depend greatly on changes made by humans in the area of fire management.