Tree Migration Direction Affected by Climate Change

The overall effects of climate change on the Earth aren’t always easy to predict. Every year, as the climate continues to change, scientists gather data that brings us closer to understanding just how much climate change can impact different parts of our world. As the climate changes, plants and animals seek locations that are best for their survival.

Ecologists have found that climate change, as it changes precipitation levels and temperatures, is causing trees to grow in different locations than they have traditionally taken root. As lower elevations get warmer, trees seek cooler environments further up mountain sides which decreases the amount of space they have to live in. Eventually, large-scale die offs of important tree species may occur due to limited environments they are able to live in.

Changing precipitation levels are also causing trees to move further west. Most tree varieties are highly sensitive to changes in the amount of water they have, and less water could cause trees to move faster than ever before. Ecologists are keeping an eye on trees that are currently migrating to see if they will stay together with like species of trees, or if some populations of trees will become isolated if others move faster into different environments.

Shift of species mean abundance center by ecoprovinces in the eastern United States during the last three decades.

Shift of species mean abundance center by ecoprovinces in the eastern United States during the last three decades. 210, Northern Hardwood region; 220, Central Hardwood region; 230, Southern Pine-Hardwood region; 250, Forest-Prairie Transition region. Map: Fei et al., 2017).

Flowering trees, or angiosperms, are more likely to move in a westerly direction, while gymnosperms are more likely to be moving further north. Most trees can adapt to a certain amount of change in their environment, but larger climate alterations over time can pose dangers to forested areas in the United States and elsewhere. There are a variety of factors that influence the forests, including human habitation, history of logging, and the risk or reality of forest fires coming through the area.

Rose diagrams depicting the direction and distance of abundance shifts for 86 species. Figure: Fei et. al, 2017.

Rose diagrams depicting the direction and distance of abundance shifts for 86 species. Figure: Fei et. al, 2017.

Climate change influences many aspects of the world around us. Trees and our forests are one resource that could be dramatically altered by changes to the climate, both natural and manmade.

Reference

Fei, S., Desprez, J. M., Potter, K. M., Jo, I., Knott, J. A., & Oswalt, C. M. (2017). Divergence of species responses to climate change. Science Advances, 3(5), e1603055.

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