Skip to main content

Forests in a Changing Climate

The climate changes expected over the next century will have huge consequences for ecosystems and the benefits they provide, including the provision of wood and fuel, food, temperature and flood regulation, erosion control, recreational and aesthetic value, and species habitat, among others.

Climate changes are likely to affect important ecological processes that will, in turn, affect key natural resources. For example, temperature and precipitation changes could mean that insectswildfireinvasive plants, and forest diseases will become more frequent in some areas of the country. The emissions that cause climate change also lead to air quality problems that put additional stress on trees.

Coupled with altered hydrology and increased disturbance and stress, climate change will affect how species are distributed within the U.S. and will cause changes in aquatic ecosystemswildlife species, and soils. How these resources are affected will have broad implications for maintaining ecosystem services, including biodiversity and the carbon storage capabilities of forests. Each impact on one aspect of an ecosystem can affect a variety of others, producing a series of cumulative effects that can make it difficult for ecosystems to adapt. These effects and many other issues are considered in Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessments being created across the country.

Our Forests, Our Solutions from the Climate Change Resource Center.

Responding to Climate Change
Meeting the diverse challenges that climate change is imposing on Earth's environments requires many approaches, and specific responses will depend heavily on the management goals for a particular resource. Scientists are currently working to understand the risks posed to ecosystems, through examining characteristics and changes in landscapes and conducting assessments on impacts and ecosystem vulnerabilities. Public lands, private landswilderness areas, and urban neighborhoods will all be affected, and each will require different management considerations. Specific management tools practiced under silviculture can be valuable for helping forests respond to a changing climate.

For those charged with managing ecosystems, climate change can seem like a daunting challenge. Fortunately, a range of management options exist to help ecosystems adapt to climate changes, and to contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These options are often complementary to actions that land managers employ regularly.

Principles for Managing Lands Under Climate Change
Although land managers already have many tools available to begin to address climate change, management thinking may need to reconsider issues like spatial scales, timing, and prioritization of efforts. The following principles* can serve as a starting point:

Prioritization: It will be increasingly important to prioritize actions for adaptation based both on the vulnerability of resources and on the likelihood that actions to reduce vulnerability will be effective.

Flexible and adaptive management: Adaptive management provides a science-based, experimental framework for decision-making that maintains flexibility and incorporates new knowledge and experience over time.

"No regrets" decisions: Actions that result in a wide variety of benefits under multiple scenarios and have little or no risk may be initial places to look for near-term implementation.

Precautionary actions: Where vulnerability is high, precautionary actions to reduce risk in the near term, even with existing uncertainty, may be extremely important.

Variability and uncertainty: Climate change is much more than increasing temperatures; increasing climate variability will lead to equal or greater impacts that will need to be addressed.

Integrating mitigation: Many adaptation actions are complementary with actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and actions to adapt forests to future conditions can help maintain and increase their ability to sequester carbon.

Managing multiple stressors: Impacts from changing climate are often first felt through their effect on ecological disturbance (wildlife, flood, insects, and disease).  Managing ecosystems for resilience to these forces is a wise place to focus resource action.

This page features information from the Climate Change Resource Center (CCRC). The majority of the CCRC is dedicated describing ecosystem responses to climate change, and how natural resource management may be able to respond to those changes. Please follow the links in the text, or explore the CCRC website for further information.

*Adapted from Forest Adaptation Resources