Changing forests

Climate changes will influence regional forests, but forests are slow to change and the changes are more difficult to monitor.

When Bob Dylan released his The Times They Are a-Changin' album in 1964, he probably did not know just how fast things were picking up speed. Most humans, so the social psychologists seem to say, are resistant to change. And, so it goes with climate change perception, perhaps.

With all the changes occurring around us, many of them with immediate and tangible influence, it is easy to set aside something like climate change for a day that our schedules will not likely see. However, science has not set aside measuring and analyzing the changes that our planet is undergoing. And, they are getting better at it as tools and technologies improve.

Ignoring the rhetoric of politics, conspiracies, and hidden agendas, there exist discreet trends that, if they continue, will significantly influence the not-so-distant future. Which trends? The last 50 to 100 years show varying degrees of evidence for trends such as:

  1. Rising temperatures,
  2. More intense and frequent severe storms,
  3. Longer growing seasons,
  4. Altered rainfall patterns and summer droughts,
  5. Shorter periods of ice cover and earlier snowmelt,
  6. River flow changes,
  7. Changing wildfire patterns,
  8. Rising sea levels, More rapid glacial retreats, and
  9. Thawing permafrost.

The data sets are convincing, especially when you look at the entire time scale. The world climate is strikingly complex, however, and these trends vary around the globe and among regions. For resource managers and landowners, the more important consideration might have to do with longer-term effects on our forest land.

In the universe of responses to climate change, there are the schools of “mitigation” and “adaptation”. These schools are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. In the forest realm, they are quite complementary.

Mitigation is measures that slow the change. Science has demonstrated that forests play a huge role in the carbon cycle, and carbon dioxide is one of the major gases that affect climate. Keeping forests as forests is a key element. Managing forests for increased vigor, and storing carbon in wood products, is another key element.

Adaptation involves methods and techniques that might be used to adapt to the new environmental conditions. Forests will respond to changes in precipitation, temperature, cycles, and other ecological drivers. However, forests are slow to change and defining the new pathways can be difficult. Forests are also very dynamic systems, meaning their responses may hold some surprises for forest researchers, managers and owners.

Tweaking forest management to account for climate change often involves practices that are good to employ for several other beneficial, and more traditional, outcomes. A well-managed forest can increase biological diversity. More diverse forests may be more resistant to changes. Well-managed forests are less vulnerable to many pests and pathogens. A well-managed forest also produces higher quality timber (more money) and more ecological services (habitat, water quality, etc.).

In our region, one of the leaders in forest adaptation science is the U.S. Forest Service National Institute for Applied Climate Science, located in Houghton. These scientists have been working with several partners across the Lake States to identify forest vulnerabilities, likelihood of change, and possible management strategies. Of course, they are also working in a cloud of statistical uncertainty. The uncertainty is not so much whether or not there will be change but, rather, what the nature of what those changes will be.

Should forest owners be managing their forests in an entirely different direction for a changing climate? Probably not, unless they are currently doing nothing at all. The most important recommendation, the one for which Michigan State University Extension would advocate, would be to manage for a healthier and more vigorous forest, and keep in mind that over the course of the life of a particular forest, the environmental conditions are likely to change. Our children and grandchildren will inherit our choices.

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