New Report: Climate Change Poses Challenges for U.S. Forestry

Washington, DC – One-third of U.S. lands are covered by forests, making forest ecosystems one of the nation’s most prominent natural resources. In addition to their contribution to biodiversity, water quality, and recreation, forests also play a significant role in the U.S. economy, and forestry or forestry-related enterprises are the dominant industries in many U.S. communities. According to a new study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the U.S. forestry sector will face a number of challenges in the next century due to the impacts of climate change.

The Pew Center report, Forests and Global Climate Change: Potential Impacts on U.S. Forest Resources, explores the challenges climate change will pose to forest ecosystems and related economic enterprises over the next century.

“Changes in forest productivity, the migration of tree species, and potential increases in wildfires and disease could cause substantial changes to U.S. forests,” said Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “Moreover, these ecological impacts will have direct implications for our economy. The timber industry in the southern United States is particularly vulnerable.”

The key conclusions of the report include:

Forest location, composition, and productivity will be altered by changes in temperature and precipitation. Climate change is virtually certain to drive the migration of tree species, resulting in changes in the geographic distribution of forest types and new combinations of species within forests. In addition, climate change is likely to alter forest productivity depending upon location, tree species, water availability, and the effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilization.

Changes in forest disturbance regimes, such as fire or disease, could further affect the future of U.S. forests and the market for forest products. Increased temperatures could increase fire risk in areas that experience increased aridity, and climate change could promote the proliferation of diseases and pests that attack tree species.

U.S. economic impacts will vary regionally. Overall, economic studies indicate that the net impacts of climate change on the forestry sector will be small, ranging from slightly negative to positive impacts; however, gains and losses will not be distributed evenly throughout the United States. The Southeast, which is currently a dominant region for forestry, is likely to experience net losses, as tree species migrate northward and tree productivity declines. Meanwhile, the North is likely to benefit from tree migration and longer growing seasons.

As a managed resource, the implications of climate change for the forestry sector are largely dependent upon the actions taken to adapt to climate change. The United States currently has vast forest resources, and more timber grows within the United States than is consumed each year. If professional foresters take proactive measures, the sector may minimize the negative economic consequences of climate change.

A number of challenges currently limit our understanding of the effects of climate change on forestry. Existing projections for future changes in temperature and precipitation span a broad range making it difficult to predict the future climate that forests will experience, particularly at the regional level. Thus, current projections could fail to accurately predict the actual long-term impacts of climate change for the forestry sector.