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Planting Trees for a Changing Climate

For communities and individuals thinking about yard trees what simple methods are available to understand vulnerability in the context of a single tree or a forest property? Considering a tree's tolerance to environmental stress can help to optimize tree plantings for success given climate change pressures over time. A more resilient landscape can provide long-term climate and human health outcomes for communities.

How will climate change affect the tree you plan to plant? 

Trees planted today will face a climate that is changing faster than at any point in history. They will experience variability in the weather encountering:

  • shorter and warmer winters
  • longer and warmer growing seasons with extended periods of drought
  • more frequent heavy rain events
  • more competition by invasive species
  • more pest pressures and diseases (National Climate Assessment
Tree plugs in a bucket

Some trees may readily tolerate changes brought about by climate change, while others may become stressed, unhealthy, and less able to survive after extreme events and disturbances. Before planting a tree, it’s important to assess if the tree planned for planting today can cope with the climate changes expected over its lifespan.

This guide provides a step-by-step process to help you consider climate change when selecting a tree. It includes a checklist and worksheets that can help you evaluate if the tree you want to plant can tolerate the growing conditions of your site and the additional risks brought about by climate change. 

The guide helps you consider these questions when considering how climate change might challenge the growing conditions of a tree:

  • Can this tree tolerate warmer winters over time (changing “hardiness zones”)?
  • Can this tree tolerate changes in extreme heat days over time (changing “heat zones”)?
  • Is this tree expected to do well under future climate conditions?
  • What can you do to help this tree cope with more variable and extreme climate conditions?

Which tree species should be planted?

This guide will walk you through the steps and provide the resources in order to evaluate potential trees for your site.

Trees planted in a neighborhood. Photo credit: NIACS.

If you are located in the Midwest or Northeast U.S. you can visit the Climate Change Response Framework website to review climate vulnerability assessments which contain locally specific lists of tree species habitat suitability given climate change through the end of century. The lists are summarized by state, by ecoregion, and even by city in select urban areas. 

Additional tree species model information can be found for 125 trees as part of the USDA Forest Service Tree Atlas interactive tool that covers the entire Eastern U.S.

Download the guide

Why are trees important?

Trees provide numerous social, economic, and environmental benefits. For example, trees:

  • Produce oxygen we need to breathe
  • Improve air quality and provide health benefits
  • Create shade and reduce temperatures
  • Control stormwater and reduce erosion and pollution

Local action, global effort

Trees can also mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and storing the carbon.

The United States is part of the One Trillion Tree Initiative, which is committed to working toward the goal of protecting, conserving, planting, and growing one trillion trees globally by 2030.