Global Warming: Man or Myth?

Scientists can also wear their citizen hats

Global Warming Impact on Forests & Woodlands

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Greenhouse gas emissions have significantly altered global climate, and will continue to do so in the future. Increases in the frequency, duration, and/or severity of drought and heat stress associated with climate change could fundamentally alter the composition, structure, and biogeography of forests in many regions. Of particular concern are potential increases in tree mortality associated with climate induced physiological stress and interactions with other climate-mediated processes such as insect outbreaks and wildfire (Allen et al., 2010).


Forests have been identified as being very vulnerable to climate change in the long run but may be more vulnerable in the short term if other disturbances such as drought, insects, and fires cross key thresholds (IPCC, 2007).  Key ecosystems that forests provide include:

  • habitats for an increasing fraction of biodiversity
  • carbon sequestration
  • climate regulation
  • soil and water protection or purification (>75% of globally usable freshwater supplies come from forested catchments
  • recreational, cultural and spiritual benefits

Forests cover about 42 million km2 in tropical, temperate, and boreal lands, which is about 30% of the global land surface as shown in the figure below (Bonan, et al., 2008).

Global Forest Area

Global Forest Area

Forests store about 45% of the terrestrial carbon (see figure below) and contribute about 50% of terrestrial net primary production (Ibid).

Global Forest Carbon Storage

Global Forest Carbon Storage

Carbon uptake by forests removes about 33% of human carbon emissions from fossil fuel and land use change so forests are critical for tempering climate change and mechanisms related to forests are included in climate model projections. 

As shown in the figure below (Ibid), the current generation of climate models treats the biosphere and atmosphere as a coupled system. These models include (A) surface energy fluxes and (B) the hydrologic cycle.  Many models also include (C) the carbon cycle and (D) vegetation dynamics so that plant ecosystems respond to climate change. Some models also include (E) land use and (F) urbanization to represent human alteration of the biosphere.

Climate models treat the biosphere and atmosphere as coupled

Climate Models and Biosphere

As the climate warms, tree species are expected to migrate.  The figures below (USGRP, 2009) show how tree species are projected to migrate northward in the Unites States and how trees migrate to higher altitudes, respectively.

US Forests Shift Northward

US Forests Shift Northward

Forests Shift Upslope

Forests Shift to Higher Elevations

Estimates for migration rates of tree species from palaeoecological records are on average 200-300 m/yr, which is a rate significantly below that required in response to anticipated future climate change (IPCC, 2007).

By 2100 only 18% to 45% of the plants and animals making up ecosystems in global, humid tropical forests may remain as we know them today, according to a study led by Greg Asner at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.  Tropical forests hold more than half of all the plants and animal species on Earth but the combined effect of climate change, forest clear cutting, and logging may force them to adapt, move, or die (e! Science News, 2010). 

Tropical forests are vulnerable to a warmer, drier climate, which may exacerbate global warming through a positive feedback that decreases evaporative cooling, releases CO2, and initiates forest dieback (IPCC, 2007).  When land clearance (deforestation) crosses a critical threshold, these tropical forests may move to a permanent dry landscape (Bonan et al., 2008).

Boreal forests have a lower surface albedo (lower reflectivity) compared to the surrounding snow and ice or areas with an absence of trees.  As forests begin to encroach on these areas, global warming will be exacerbated due to a greater absorption of incoming solar radiation as evidenced by the forest expansion during the mid-Holocene 6000 years ago which amplified warming during that period (Ibid). 

Boreal forests are vulnerable to global warming.  Trees may expand into tundra, but die back in more southern regions.  There may be loss of evergreen trees and a shift toward deciduous trees. Siberian forests may collapse in some areas and become more evergreen in the north (Ibid).

The figure below (Ibid) is a good summary of how forests provide positive and negative climate change feedbacks:

Forests in Flux

Forests in Flux

Tree mortality caused by warmer and drier conditions has the potential to rapidly alter forest ecosystems which will subsequently affect climate feedbacks (Allen et al., 2010; Adams et al., 2010)  The figure below (Adams, et al., 2010) summarizes these feedbacks:

Forest Mortality

Forest Mortality

Reports of tree morality have been increasing in the past few decades and appear to be greater than normal mortality rates.  It is strongly suspected that increased temperatures and more severe drought are the culprits.  In the southwestern US in the early 2000s, drought and insect-driven mortality of the piñon pine affected more than 12,000 km2 in less than three years killing 40-97% of the trees at some sites (Ibid). 

In western Canada, drought and warmer temperatures accelerated mountain pine beetle population growth and range and these insects killed millions of trees across 130,000 km2 of pine forests in six years. 

Extreme cold temperatures during winter can reduce pine beetle populations. For freezing temperatures to affect a large number of larvae during the middle of winter, temperatures of at least 30 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) must be sustained for at least five days (Leatherman, Aguayo, & Mehall, 2010).  As climate warms, there will be fewer periods of this killing cold.  Other insect outbreaks have been documented in North America from Alaska to Mexico with drought and warming the common drivers of these outbreaks (Adams et al., 2010).

Allen et al. (2010) have documented extensive tree mortality in Arica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America as shown in the figures below:


Satellite map of Africa, with documented drought-induced mortality areas indicated with numbers, tied to Table A1 references. Upper photo: Cedrus atlantica die-off in Belezma National Park, Algeria; 2007, by Haroun Chenchouni. Lower photo: quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma) mortality in Tirasberg Mountains, Namibia; 2005, by Wendy Foden.


Satellite map of Asia, with documented drought-induced mortality localities indicated with numbers, tied to Table A2 references. Lower R Photo: Dead Abies koreana, Mount Halla, South Korea; 2008, by Jong-Hwan Lim. Upper R photo: Pinus tabulaeformis mortality in Shanxi Province, China; 2001, by Yugang Wang. Center photo: Dying Pinus yunnanensis in Yunnan Province, China; 2005, by Youqing Luo. Upper L photo; Abies cilicicia mortality in the Bozkir-Konya region, Anatolia, Turkey; 2002, by Orphan Celik. Lower L photo: Dying Pinus nigra near Kastamonu, Anatolia, Turkey; 2008, by Akkin Semerci.


Satellite map of Australasia, with documented drought-induced mortality areas indicated with numbers, tied to Table A3 references. R photo: Die-off of mulga, Acacia aneura, the dominant tree across large areas of semi-arid Australia; 2007, by Rod Fensham. L photo: Eucalyptus xanthoclada mortality in Queensland, northeastern Australia; 1996, by Rod Fensham.


Satellite map of Europe, with documented drought-induced mortality areas indicated with numbers, tied to Table A4 references. R photo: Pinus sylvestris mortality, Valais, Switzerland; 1999, by Beat Wermelinger. L photo: Pinus sylvestris die-off, Sierra de los Filabres, Spain; 2006, by Rafael Navarro-Cerrillo.

North America

Satellite map of North America, with documented drought-induced mortality localities indicated with numbers, tied to Table A5 references. Top photo: Aerial view showing severe mortality of aspen (Populus tremuloides) in the parkland zone of Alberta, Canada; 2004, by Michael Michaelian. Lower photo: Pinus ponderosa die-off, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico, USA; 2006, by Craig D. Allen.

South America

Satellite map of South and Central America, with documented drought-induced mortality localities indicated with numbers, tied to Table A6 references. Photo: Nothofagus dombeyi mortality at Rı´o Manso Inferior, northern Patagonia, Argentina; 2004, by Thomas Kitzberger.

Tree mortality has already switched a carbon sink to a carbon source in British Columbia where mortality associated with beetle outbreaks reduced carbon sinks by 270 megatons over the past 20 years.  Increased tree mortality also has the potential to offset the carbon sequestration of increased forest growth caused by CO2 fertilization (Adams et al., 2010).

Nitschke and Innes (2008) developed a model to investigate tree species resilience and vulnerability to climate change within its fundamental regeneration niche. The tree and climate assessment (TACA) model was tested within the interior Douglas-fir ecosystem in south-central British Columbia.  TACA modeled the current potential tree species composition of the ecosystem with high accuracy and modeled significant responses amongst tree species to climate change. The response of individual species suggests that the studied ecosystem could transition to a new ecosystem over the next 100 years.  The chart below summarizes the model results and shows that many species will no longer be present in this region by the year 2085.

Species Response to Climate Change

Species Response to Climate Change

Minimum and maximum GDD thresholds are used to determine the lower and upper relationship limits between temperature and growth. If the maximum and minimum requirements are not met, minimum growth rates occur that can result in species mortality.  Species-specific chilling requirements are measured to determine if frost hardiness is induced. Some species are very sensitive to late spring frosts, resulting in very high chilling requirements being required before bud break will occur.  Climate change may interfere with the ability of trees to meet their chilling requirements for bud break, flowering and germination. The inability of a species to obtain its chilling requirement can seriously affect  the species’ ability to re-establish after disturbance, facilitating changes in community composition.  Drought conditions have and will prevent establishment of species on a site and cause mortality of established seedlings.  In TACA, If the threshold is exceeded then a species is assumed to be absent from the site (Ibid).

In a few exceptions, climate change may increase diversity locally or regionally but in most cases extinction risks are projected to increase (IPCC, 2007).

References for this post.

Written by Scott Mandia

August 31, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses

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  1. Great piece Scott. Incidentally, the first forest flux graphic here is on what I’m currently involved in -. eddy flux (radiation, CO2 and H2O fluxes between the atmosphere and the ecosystems).
    The main points here that you’ve made, which cannot be stressed enough is that the rate of change is currently too great for most species to migrate (plus anthropogenic and geographical barriers), net carbon sinks are becoming sources (positive feedback) and that the tropics are in most most trouble.
    I’m currently working on a series for Skeptical Science (if it ever gets moving that is), in which I’m planning to have a post focusing on Deutsch et al (2008) Impacts of climate warming on terrestrial ectotherms across latitudes. Here they demonstrate that insects are living closer to their optimum at lower latitude and thus are less able to adapt to changes in climate than higher latitude species.
    All in all, we will continue to see high extinction rates which will ultimately effect biodiversity richness and resilience – decreasing ecosystems means less ecological services. It will impact on human health.


    September 1, 2010 at 12:56 am

  2. Excellent post, Scott – clear, well-written, good illustrations.

    Hunt Janin

    September 1, 2010 at 1:28 am

  3. Hope I’m not taking up too much space on this blog but if anyone can give me the names of the 5 US cities most likely to be affected in the future by sea level rise, I’ll pipe down for awhile.

    Hunt Janin

    September 1, 2010 at 9:24 am

    • Hunt,


      Overpeck, J. & Weiss, J. (2009). Projections of future sea level becoming more dire. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (51), 21461-21462.

      NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). 2009 update to data originally published in: NOAA. 2001. Sea level variations of the United States 1854–1999. NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 36.

      Scott Mandia

      September 1, 2010 at 9:51 am

  4. I plan to study this post in more detail soon, but I have a question about the first Forests in Flux illustration (Fig 2 ), part C Carbon Cycle.
    It shows soil carbon -> mineralization -> nutrient uptake. Is the plant getting carbon via it’s roots? I thought all plant carbon was obtained via photosynthesis through leaf or similar tissues. Is there a conflict? Am I interpreting the figure connectly?


    September 2, 2010 at 9:58 am

    • Soil carbon uptake would be in the form of organic materials – photosynthetic uptake is inorganic (ie. carbon dioxide). Both are used for different purposes.🙂


      September 2, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    • No, the tree is not taking carbon out of the soil.

      A simple explanation from a botanist I know:

      1) The microorganisms in the soil are influenced by the carbon content of the soil because carbon is food for them.

      2) These microorganisms are critical for nutrient (NPK) uptake into the tree.

      3) Trees use those nutrients for photosynthesis.

      4) Photosynthesis results in carbon storage.

      5) Therefore, any change in the nutrient cycle then changes photosynthesis efficiency and hence carbon storage.

      Scott Mandia

      September 2, 2010 at 6:40 pm

  5. Great post – thanks once again. I am really appreciating this series.

    Mandia: You are very welcome. Next up is Grasslands and Savannas. Not as much research with those ecosystems.

    Byron Smith

    September 9, 2010 at 9:19 am

  6. where can i get those reference details of your citation ? eg Adams et al., 2010 ? THanks


    October 1, 2010 at 5:33 am

  7. […] Play a significant role in carbon storage and sequestration (28% of forests are in mountains.  See: Global Warming Impact on Forests & Woodlands)  […]

  8. […] The “Dec­la­ra­tion,” which was pre­sented on Sep­tem­ber 23 at the UN Cli­mate Sum­mit, has three main goals. The first two goals are to halve the amount of the earth’s nat­ural for­est loss by 2020, and to com­pletely elim­i­nate its for­est loss by 2030. Restor­ing mil­lions of acres of land area to nat­ural forests world­wide is the third tenet of this dec­la­ra­tion. The­o­ret­i­cally, the doc­u­ment is an excel­lent plan for improv­ing cli­mate resilience. Forests are cru­cial in seques­ter­ing car­bon emis­sions. By stop­ping for­est loss, car­bon pol­lu­tion is esti­mated to be reduced by 4.5 – 8.8 bil­lion tons. While this alone is not a solu­tion to emis­sions (an entirely dif­fer­ent topic), restor­ing forests is an incred­i­bly cost-effective strat­egy in mit­i­ga­tion. The enact­ment of such a dec­la­ra­tion would also force world lead­ers to dras­ti­cally rethink land use and envi­ron­men­tal pol­icy.Approx­i­mately 45% of global car­bon is stored in forests. (Photo credit: Prof­man­dia) […]

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