MAY 19, 2017 02:10 PM PDT

Climate change is changing forest landscapes

Climate scientists have predicted that in order to adapt to climate change, species will move towards the poles and higher in elevation, thus realigning their natural temperature ranges with the changing temperatures of our planet. A new survey shows that tree populations are shifting as predicted – however they are also migrating in an unexpected way: west.

Published in Science Advances, the study used data from the US Forest Service to look at 86 tree species between 1980 and 2015, including white oaks, sugar maples, and American hollies. During that time, 73% of the trees saw their population centers move westward, and 62% saw them move northward. According to Science Alert, westbound trees moved by about 9.5 miles per decade; northward trees moved about 6.8 miles per decade.

Now to be clear, we are not talking about walking trees. Individual trees do not walk (although there is one neotropical species whose name suggests otherwise); rather populations see migrations through the dispersal of young saplings. But why would such dispersal be moving westward?

The scientists hypothesize that multiple factors could be at work, including changes in land use, wildfire frequency, the presence of pests and blights, and conservation successes. Yet they are certain that human-caused changes in precipitation is also at play here.

“Different species are responding to climate change differently. Most of the broad-leaf species—deciduous trees—are following moisture moving westward. The evergreen trees—the needle species—are primarily moving northward,” said Songlin Fei, a professor of forestry at Purdue University and one of the authors of the study.

Where the center of population of tree species shifted between 1980 and 2015 (Fei et al. / Nature Advances)

The Atlantic reports the team’s reasoning: climate change has impacted rainfall totals, with the northeast receiving little more since 1980 than it did last century, the southeast much less, and the Great Plains, especially in Oklahoma and Kansas, much more.

The team is unsure if the westward trend will continue in future decades, or if northward migration will overtake it. Fei told a correspondent from The Atlantic, “When the result came out that trees are moving westward, our eyeballs opened wide. Like, ‘Wow, what’s going on with this?’ The results seem to show that moisture plays a much more significant role in the near-term, which is very intriguing.”

Sources: The Atlantic, Science Alert

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
DEC 06, 2018
Infographics
DEC 06, 2018
Cool facts about snow
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Snow? It might be hitting the slopes, sitting by the fireplace while snow falls outside or shovelling the driveway....
DEC 29, 2018
Microbiology
DEC 29, 2018
A Microbe's Membrane Protects It From Extreme Environments
There are microscopic organisms called archaea living in some of Earth's most intense environments....
JAN 07, 2019
Plants & Animals
JAN 07, 2019
Habitat Changes Are Impacting the Proboscis Monkey
Endemic to the island of Borneo, the humble proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) tries its best to survive despite several threats that pit all odds against...
JAN 14, 2019
Plants & Animals
JAN 14, 2019
A Gulf of California-Centric Fin Whale Population Stays There Year-Round
The fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) is the second-largest animal species on Earth after the blue whale, but despite its immense size, the fin whale has p...
JAN 30, 2019
Plants & Animals
JAN 30, 2019
New Study Supports Idea That Sonar Causes Mass Stranding Events in Whales
The last several decades have seen an explosive uptick in the number of mass stranding events (MSEs) involving certain types of whales, prompting researche...
FEB 05, 2019
Plants & Animals
FEB 05, 2019
Male Killer Whales Forage More Than Females, but Success Isn't Always Guaranteed
All wild animals must hunt to survive; it’s the natural order of things. But it’s sometimes tricky for scientists to understand the techniques...
Loading Comments...