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Changing Climates, Changing Forests: A Western North American Perspective

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The Earth's mean surface air temperature has warmed by 1° C over the last 100 years and is projected to increase at a faster rate in the future, accompanied by changes in precipitation patterns and increases in the occurrence of extreme weather events. In western North America, projected increases in mean annual temperatures range from 1 to 3.5° C by the 2050s, and although projected changes in precipitation patterns are more complex to model, more frequent and severe droughts are expected in many areas. For long-lived tree species, because of their relatively slow rates of migration, climate change will likely result in a mismatch between the climate that trees are currently adapted to and the climate that trees will experience in the future. Individual trees or populations exposed to climate conditions outside their climatic niches may be maladapted, resulting in compromised productivity and increased vulnerability to disturbance, specifically insects and pathogens. In western North America, as elsewhere, several recent assessments have concluded that forests are being affected by climate change and will become increasingly vulnerable to mortality as a result of the direct and indirect effects of climate change. Droughts associated with higher temperatures may accelerate levels of tree mortality, for example, because elevated temperatures increase metabolic rates without increasing photosynthesis rates, thus compromising a tree's ability to create defenses against insects and pathogens. Distributions of the climatic niches of some tree species in western North America are predicted to change by up to 200% during this century based on bioclimate envelope modeling. We discuss the science of climate change, the implications of projected climatic changes to forest ecosystems in western North America, and the essential roles of forest managers, policymakers, and scientists in addressing climate change.

Keywords: bioclimatic envelopes; climate change; disturbance ecology; forest ecology; tree physiology

Document Type: Review Article


Publication date: 2013-05-01

More about this publication?
  • The Journal of Forestry is the most widely circulated scholarly forestry journal in the world. In print since 1902, the Journal has received several national awards for excellence. The mission of the Journal of Forestry is to advance the profession of forestry by keeping forest management professionals informed about significant developments and ideas in the many facets of forestry: economics, education and communication, entomology and pathology, fire, forest ecology, geospatial technologies, history, international forestry, measurements, policy, recreation, silviculture, social sciences, soils and hydrology, urban and community forestry, utilization and engineering, and wildlife management. The Journal is published bimonthly: January, March, May, July, September, and November.

    2015 Impact Factor: 1.476
    Ranking: 22 of 66 in forestry

    Also published by SAF:
    Forest Science
    Other SAF Publications
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