Recovering New England Forests Mitigate Climate Change

New England forest

Original article in Landscape Ecology

In nineteenth century New England, most of what is now forest was covered by farmland. To assess how climate change is affecting forest regrowth (and vice versa) researchers at the Harvard Forest LTER simulated forest recovery processes with and without climate change.

Under the climate change simulation, tree growth and biomass increased but forest community composition showed little change. This result contrasts with the outcome of climate niche models—which typically show species ranges shifting northward. Why the difference? Climate niche models simulate future suitable habitat based on the climatic conditions where species currently live. However, they do not assume species will continue to grow or simulate the actual process of the species moving. The mechanistic model used in this study incorporates tree dispersal, growth, and succession, accounting for the slow turnover of forests.

These findings are significant since most management decisions have been based on niche models rather than mechanistic models. Moving forward, managers should consider the strengths and limitations of both models to make the best science-informed decisions.

The team performed two different simulations from 2010 to 2110: one with current climate conditions and one with climate change projections. In the climate change scenario, forest growth increased due to a longer growing season. Forests were able to take advantage of these favorable growing conditions because they are still well below their maximum biomass capacity due to the previous disturbances. This increased productivity increases the amount of carbon that can be taken out of the atmosphere and stored in wood and soils, a climate mitigating effect.

This model comparison shows that the major changes to community composition will likely be due to the continued recovery of New England forests, with increases in shade-tolerant species. Not only will these recovery dynamics have a greater impact than climate change on forest composition, they will also play a climate mitigation role in the decades to come.

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