A recent study published in the journal Science revealed that icebergs and polar bears are not the only things in nature showing global warming impacts. Forest health, too, is impacted by climate change.
Here in my Central Oregon home, the biggest natural disaster that can threaten our area is wildfire. The arid, mountainous area is home to millions of acres of National Forests, and also subject to frequent lightening strikes through spring and summer. We are very keyed into forest health and teaching people the proper steps to clear fuels to prevent devastating forest fires.
But something else is occurring in the stands of trees. Large areas of forest – including precious old growth trees – are dying. The Science article claims that warming temperatures that result from climate change are to blame.
Why is this, you may wonder? Of course, an increase in temperature results in a warming and drying climate. Trees compete for the nutrients and water, which is more scarce as a result. All this stress negatively impacts the forest health. Researchers are still trying to determine exactly how warmer temperatures result in tree death, in part so they can respond accordingly. Although a number of alternative causes were considered (from air pollution to wildfire suppression), the only constant factor in all areas studied was rising temperatures.
Mark Harmon, a professor at Oregon State University is one of the authors of the study. He observed:
The things that have gotten attention are the large fires and beetle kills that occur, because they are very dramatic. But, in places where we’re assuming where nothing is changing, things may be changing very rapidly in subtle ways and detectable ways.”
Over the past 17 years, evergreen trees in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California have been dying at double the rate than when previously studied in the 1970s. And the researchers expect smaller trees, in sparser stands in the future. Eventually, the average age of trees could be cut in half.
With such dramatic global warming impacts just outside our backdoor, perhaps more people will stand up and pay attention. After all, its one thing to consider melting glaciers thousands of miles away – but its another to witness dying old growth forests in your home state.
We don’t just stand to lose a few additional trees. Loss of old growth forest stands will result in diminishing wildlife habitat, further threatening species like the spotted owl. We also lose the carbon-absorption properties that our dense, beautiful forests provide. Many of us also love to hike and recreate in the forest. Will this be yet another casualty of global warming impacts?
It really should not be a surprise that forest health is threatened by global warming. With shrinking overall snowpacks and average temperatures that have climbed a few degrees in recent decades, is it realistic to think that trees will not be affected?
Hopefully, nature’s wake-up call will be heard in time to slow these global warming impacts.