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New England Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment

How are forests vulnerable to climate change?

Forests and ecosystems in the New England region will be affected directly and indirectly by a changing climate over the next 100 years. Understanding the potential impacts is an important first step to sustaining healthy forests in the face of changing conditions.

Forest ecosystems will face direct and indirect impacts from a changing climate over the 21st century. This assessment evaluates the vulnerability of forest ecosystems across the New England region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, northern New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) under a range of future climates.

Major findings

  • Observed trends in climate over the historical record from 1901 through 2011 show that the mean annual temperature has increased across the region by 2.4 °F, with even greater warming during winter.
  • Precipitation patterns also changed during this time, with a slight trend toward greater annual precipitation and a substantial increase in extreme precipitation events.
  • Projected climate trends using downscaled global climate model data indicate a potential increase in mean annual temperature of 3 to 8 °F for the assessment area by 2100.
  • Projections for precipitation indicate an increase in fall and winter precipitation, and spring and summer precipitation projections vary by scenario.
  • Model projections suggest that many northern and boreal species, including balsam fir, red spruce, and black spruce, may fare worse under future conditions, but other species may benefit from projected changes in climate.

Vulnerability was assessed through a formal elicitation process with 20 scientists and resource managers from across the area, who considered vulnerability in terms of the potential impacts and the adaptive capacity for an individual community. Published literature on climate impacts related to wildfire, invasive species, and forest pests and diseases also contributed to the overall determination of climate change vulnerability.

  • Montane sprucefir, low-elevation spruce-fir, and lowland mixed conifer forests were determined to be the most vulnerable communities. Central hardwoods, transition hardwoods, and pitch pine-scrub oak forests were perceived as having lower vulnerability to projected changes in climate.

These projected changes in climate and the associated impacts and vulnerabilities will have important implications for economically valuable timber species, forest-dependent animals and plants, recreation, and long-term natural resource planning.

Download the assessment

New England and northern New York forest ecosystem vulnerability assessment and synthesis: a report from the New England Climate Change Response Framework project (2018) (external link)

Video presentation summarizing the vulnerability assessment (external link)

Interactive ESRI Story map summarizing this vulnerability assessment

More on the assessment

  • Uses new scientific projections of future changes in climate, such as differences in seasonal temperature and precipitation
  • Combines results from a variety of new scientific research that examines how forest ecosystems may respond to changes in climate, disturbance, and management
  • Relies on local expertise from scientists and forest managers to synthesize the results and identify key vulnerabilities within forest ecosystems
  • Describes the implications that future changes will have on a wide variety of ecological, social, and economic factors

Projections for individual tree species (external links)

The region's forests will be affected by a changing climate during this century, but individual tree species will respond uniquely to climate change, depending on their particular silvics and ecological tolerances. These handouts summarize general climate change projections for tree species across several large landscapes based on future projections from the USDA Forest Service Climate Change Tree Atlas and LANDIS models (featured in the vulnerability assessment). The general trends derived from these models can be combined with local knowledge and management experience to judge risk on a particular site.


Information provided by the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science's Climate Change Response Framework. Learn more about this resource and find more at