In as little as 20 years, forests in the U.S. may look very different than they do today. A new study is warning that climate change and drought will likely threaten all of the country’s trees.
The effects on the American West have already proven disastrous, but a new study that compiles hundreds of smaller studies on the health of U.S. forests and rangelands has suggested that the problem will spread east, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
Science is currently scrambling to understand the effects warmer, drier conditions will have on these precious woodlands. Such knowledge is critical if they hope to save them.
It’s not just the natural landscape that is in danger. Currently, 193 million acres of U.S. forests and grasslands provide drinking water for 60 million Americans. Further, woodlands support 200,000 jobs and pump $13 billion in local economies, every single year.
At the moment, science cannot predict the speed or severity of global warming’s effects, but we’ve already seen what’s happened in the west. Warm and dry weather in that part of the country has decimated entire tree communities, caused bark beetle infestations that then kill even more trees, and encourage wildfires that raze the landscape, a Duke University press release explained.
Evidence is hinting that climate change is moving faster than the ability of all U.S. forests to adapt and now threaten the viability of trees from coast to coast. Drought is expected to get worse, occur more often, and last longer, according to the study.
The core of the problem is that the woods can adapt to changing environments. They do this by expanding into new territory through natural means like seed dispersal. But if the environment changes too fast, all of them won’t be able to respond quickly enough.
The potential effects that researchers now believe threaten all U.S. forests include “wildfire risks, species distribution, forest biodiversity and productivity, and virtually all goods and services,” said environmental scientist and lead study author James Clark.
“There is a pressing need to know what is happening now, what might happen in the future and how we can manage for these changes.”
The trouble is, as scientists watch climate change threaten the natural landscape, they’re ill-equipped to cope — they have no idea how entire tree populations work and, therefore, can’t predict their future with any certainty. The study is not only dire, it reveals many unknowns.
According to Clark, scientists understand how climate change can threaten trees individually. But their knowledge ends there.
“Ecologists have identified many of the important differences between species that explain how they respond differently to drought. But there’s still uncertainty about what might happen at the species-wide or stand-wide levels, particularly (in the east). These are the scales where we really need reliable predictions so forest managers can take steps now to help reduce large-scale problems.”
The study, which combines hundreds of smaller studies and involves scientists from 14 institutions, including Duke University, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Agriculture, is meant to provide a baseline of information on how global warming can threaten all forests in the country. With this foundation, land managers can figure out ways to improve drought resilience and adaptation practices.
The hope is that the scientists will fill the knowledge gap and predict the spread and pace of climate change on the country’s natural landscapes, Tech Times added. The focus of these efforts will be on determining the response of species to the changing environment.
[Image via Colin D. Young/Shutterstock]