Drought Due to Climate Change is Threatening Nearly All Forests in the United States

First Posted: Feb 23, 2016 08:11 AM EST

Climate change may be threatening nearly all U.S. forests with drought. Scientists have found that forests nationwide are experiencing drier conditions due to increasing drought and climate change.

In this latest study, the researchers conducted a comprehensive overview of current and projected future drought impacts on forests nationwide. The scientists also identified knowledge gaps that hinder scientists' ability to predict the pace and extent of future effects.

"Over the last two decades, warming temperatures and variable precipitation have increased the severity of forest droughts across much of the continental United States," said James S. Clark, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "While the effects have been most pronounced in the West, our analysis shows virtually all U.S. forests are now experiencing change and are vulnerable to future declines. Given the high degree of uncertainty in our understanding of how forest species and stands adapt to rapid change, it's going to be difficult to anticipate the type of forests that will be here in 20 to 40 years."

Forest diebacks due to drought, bark beetle infestations and wildfires are already occurring on large scales across the western portion of the United States. In addition, many climate models predict droughts are likely to become more severe, frequent and prolonged across much of the United States.

There is also mounting evidence that climate is changing faster than tree populations can respond to by migrating to new regions. As conditions become drier and warmer, many tree populations may not be able to expand rapidly enough into new habitats.

"Prolonged drought affects wildfire risks, species distribution, forest biodiversity and productivity, and virtually all goods and services provided by forests, so there is a pressing need to know what is happening now, what might happen in the future and how we can manage for these changes," said Clark.

The findings are published in the journal Global Change Biology.

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