California Tree Loss Could Have Implications for Forests Nationwide
Climate change puts forests at risk. A recent study found that a third of the conifers in the unique Klamath region in California and Oregon could disappear by the end of this century. California has lost 130 million trees since 2010 due to the combined impacts of drought, warming temperatures and the insects and diseases that accompany them.
Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Washington has found that forest loss on one side of the U.S. can have negative consequences for plants on the other coast.
The study, published Wednesday in Environmental Research Letters, divided the U.S. into 18 regions used by the National Ecological Observatory Network and used climate models to determine what forest die-off in the 13 most wooded regions would do to vegetation throughout the country.
The National Ecological Observatory Network regions used for the study.The National Ecological Observatory Network
The largest negative impact occurred when the researchers simulated forest die-off in the Pacific Southwest region, which includes most of California. The Southwest die-off reduced vegetation in the Eastern U.S.
"These smaller areas of forest can have continental-scale impacts, and we really need to be considering this when we're thinking about ecological changes," study first author and University of Washington assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and biology Abigail Swann said in a University of Washington press release.
The impact of losing California's trees is especially distressing given that the state is already suffering climate-related tree loss.
"There's some pretty extensive, widespread forest loss going on," Swann said. "The changes we made in the model are bigger, but they're starting to converge with things that we're actually seeing.
"These results show that we need to start thinking about how altering vegetation in one place can affect plants elsewhere, especially in the context of climate change," Swann said.
The study found that forest die-off in the Northern Rockies and Great Basin region also had negative impacts on vegetation in the Eastern U.S. Tree loss in the Mid-Atlantic region, on the other hand, increased vegetation overall.
Swann said that more research was needed to determine exactly why the loss of trees in one part of the country impacted vegetation in another part, but said the process was roughly equivalent to weather events like El Niño, which change the way the atmosphere circulates. Tree loss on the West Coast led to warmer summers on the East, which is bad for vegetation.
"Forest loss is disrupting or changing the flow patterns in the atmosphere that is leading to a slightly different summertime climate in the eastern part of the country," Swann said.
The current study builds on the results of a 2016 University of Washington study that looked at the impacts on global vegetation of removing either the Amazon rainforest or the forests of the Western U.S.
Removing the Amazon had negative impacts on tree growth in Siberia, but a positive impact on vegetation in the Southeastern U.S. and Eastern South America, while removing West Coast forests had a negative impact on Siberia and the Southeastern U.S., but a positive impact on the Amazon and other South American forests.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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