Protecting forests is crucial in the fight against climate change, but a recent study warn s that they might not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. The study focuses on forests in the Western U.S. and reveals that they are changing too slowly to cope with rising temperatures. This delay has serious implications for carbon storage and biodiversity, as trees become more vulnerable to heat, drought, fires, and pests.
Over the past decade, forests in the western part of the United States have been experiencing a significant change. They are becoming increasingly dominated by tree species that are better adapted to survive in drier and hotter climate conditions. This process is known as "thermophilization."
The factors influencing this thermophilization process can vary from forest to forest. However, as a whole, the composition of our forests is struggling to keep up with the rapid changes brought about by climate change.
At a physiological level in many ecosystems, water is often limited, and higher temperatures can cause trees to lose water at a faster rate. When a tree is under extreme drought stress, its vascular system, similar to our veins and arteries, can experience tension and develop air bubbles that can damage the vascular system. Some trees have developed special vascular structures to protect themselves from these dangers, making it harder for bubbles to form and spread. Additionally, leaves of trees can wilt under drought stress. Some species combat this by closing the pores on their leaves to reduce evaporation, or by accumulating solutes in their leaf cells, making it physically more difficult for water to leave.
These findings suggest that forests may undergo significant ecological transformations in the coming decades or centuries. Areas currently covered by forests could transition into grasslands, with potentially irreversible consequences. This is particularly worrisome since the U.S. has over 32 million acres of old-growth forests on public lands, which play a crucial role in carbon storage. Protecting these forests from logging is important, but it may not be sufficient to address the larger problem. Removal of dead trees at these modeled levels is important to prevent a continued buildup of combustable forest fuels.
To gather data on the condition and health of forests across the country, scientists from the Forest Service conduct a "tree census" every decade. They measure plots of trees and collect data from various locations in the United States. This census allows them to track changes over time and gain insights into the millions of acres of forest we have.
The study analyzed approximately 100 tree species found in the western half of the continental United States. Examples include quaking aspen, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir. Each tree species has its own range, and the study revealed a troubling trend: species tend to struggle the most with climate change in the warmest, driest parts of their ranges. Even a slight increase in temperature can push them beyond their physiological limits. For instance, quaking aspen is one species that is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, although other factors like diseases also play a role.
Factors like wildfires and beetle infestations have already destroyed millions of acres of trees, partly due to rising temperatures. Even if forests remain, they will be drastically different, affecting the people and animals that rely on them. It is essential to start considering how we can adapt to these changes and mitigate their impact. Especially considering another study on the impact of forests on the water cycle and local available moisture for rainfall. The study's findings should serve as a wake-up call to take decisive action and prioritize strategies to safeguard our forests and their invaluable role in mitigating climate change.
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