Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessments

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. The identification of vulnerable species and ecosystems in the near term is a critical step in long-term planning. Some forests may exhibit substantial and long-term declines in vigor and productivity as a result of climatic changes; these forests may be considered vulnerable even if they show some resilience in community composition. Other forests are more clearly vulnerable as ecosystem function or community composition is severely altered. Vulnerability assessments recognize that a system's vulnerability is a function of its exposure to climate change, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity.

 

Ecoregional Assessments

Ecosystems will be increasingly affected by a changing climate, and understanding the potential impacts is an important first step to sustaining healthy forests in the face of changing conditions. Vulnerability assessments in order to provide high-quality information about future changes in climate and the potential effects on the forest ecosystems specific to this region. This information helps to identify the characteristics that put forest communities at greatest risk and can be used to inform natural resource management.

 A key partner to the Northern Forests Climate Hub, the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science has developed a series of vulnerability assessments for areas within the Northern Forests Climate Hub footprint as part of the NIACS Climate Change Response Framework. Although each vulnerability assessment is tailored to meet the needs identified within each region, they are designed to share similarities in general format and content. The vulnerability assessments:

  • Focus on forest ecosystems within a defined region
  • Address vulnerabilities of individual tree species and forest or natural community types within the region
  • Provide gridded historical and modeled climate change information
  • Employ at least two different forest impact models to project changes for tree species
  • Use panels of scientists and managers with local expertise to put scientific results in context

 

Vulnerability assessments have been published as US Forest Service General Technical Reports for the following regions:

 

Read the regional overview

Forests vary widely across the region, and vulnerabilities are strongly influenced by regional differences in climate impacts and adaptive capacity. The Northern Forests Climate Hub has summarized climate projections focused on forests and habitats. 

Major findings

  • Upland systems dominated by oak species generally have low vulnerability due to greater tolerance of hot and dry conditions, and some oak, hickory, and pine species are expected to become more competitive under hotter and physiologically drier conditions.
  • However, changes in precipitation patterns, disturbance regimes, soil moisture, pest and disease outbreaks, and nonnative invasive species are expected to contribute forest vulnerability across the region.
  • Northern, boreal, and montane forests have the greatest assessed vulnerability as many of their dominant tree species are projected to decline under warmer conditions.
  • Coastal forests have high vulnerability, as sea level rise along the Atlantic coast increases damage from inundation, greater coastal erosion, flooding, and saltwater intrusion.
  • Considering these potential forest vulnerabilities and opportunities is a critical step in making climate-informed decisions in long-term conservation planning.

Download the assessment

 

Responding to climate change

After assessment of site level vulnerability, a manager can decide to respond to climate change. Find a framework for adapting forests to climate change that provides a suite of materials helping land managers consider climate change and increasing the ability of forests to cope with climate change impacts. It does not provide specific recommendations, but rather serves as a decision-support tool for incorporating adaptation considerations into current management objectives. 

Forest Adaptation Resources: Climate Change Tools and Approaches for Land Managers