Changing climate, changing forests in the northeast

Blog Post created by ryan.quinn Employee on Sep 20, 2012

Mohonk Lake
A new report entitled “Changing Climate, Changing Forests: The Impacts of Climate Change on Forests of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada,” concludes that the Northeastern U.S. could be a different place by the end of the 21st century, as our forests, wildlife, insects and society adapt to a changing climate. By consolidating the research of 38 scientists from the U.S. and Canada into one report, the authors hope it will provide a foundation on which future research can be built.

For thousands of years, composition of tree species of Northeast forests have slowly shifted in response to climate, but human-caused climate change has accelerated the process. Human activities, such as fossil fuel combustion and suburban sprawl, cause increases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which trap heat and alter the Earth’s climate. In 2011, the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 387 parts per million, which is the highest level in the last 800,000 years. Even slight changes in climate can seriously impact our forests and how we live.

Here are some of the report’s findings regarding forest health:

  • Research shows climate change is underway in the Northeast and is changing more rapidly than expected. It is predicted that our region will become not only warmer and wetter, but more prone to drought. Northeast temperatures are expected to rise 5 to 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Annual precipitation has increased by 3.7 inches (9%) over the last century, occurring mostly during the spring and fall, with precipitation falling as rain not snow. Scientists have also observed an increase in extreme precipitation events over the last century.
  • Although precipitation has increased, the Northeast is experiencing longer periods without rainfall and longer growing seasons, due to higher temperatures and a decrease in snowpack depth. There has been an increase of winter precipitation, occurring as rain rather than snow, and a
    nine day reduction in snow-covered days. Longer growing seasons and warmer winters will increase water use by forests, resulting in increased periods of drought.
  • These conditions could reduce forest health. Trees will become more susceptible to insects, such as tent caterpillars, Asian longhorned beetle and hemlock woolly adelgid, and diseases like Blister rust and Dutch elm disease.
  • Competition with invasive species will increase. Invasive plants can adapt more easily to climate change and are already reducing tree regeneration. Japanese barberry, European honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet are a few of the shrubs currently impacting native understory species in the Northeast.

How will changing forest conditions affect wildfire risk for residents of the Northeast?

An increase in extreme weather events could result in significant blow downs, adding to fuel loads on the forest floor, which could cause more severe fire behavior if a wildfire ignites. Spring fire season will likely occur earlier in the Northeast, due to a reduction in snow pack and warmer winters.

Residents living in fire-prone areas may experience more wildfires during the summer if intervals of drought occur.  Drier conditions could also increase the frequency of wildfires in certain forest types of the Northeast, such as northern hardwoods, where historically fires rarely occur.

As evidence of climate change and its impact on our forests continues to mount, it is essential that communities in the wildland/urban interface areas of the Northeast consider implementing Firewise practices to reduce their risk to wildfire through the Firewise Community/USA Recognition Program.

Has your community been implementing safety mitigation practices? Share your thoughts with us and other communities. Learning from each other and sharing best practices are powerful tools as we continue to work toward lessening our risk for damage and loss due to wildfire. 

View the complete report now!