Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Trees Are Migrating West to Escape Climate Change

Climate
Pexels

By Marlene Cimons

An individual tree has roots and, of course, it doesn't move. But trees, as a species, do move over time. They migrate in response to environmental challenges, especially climate change. Surprisingly, they don't all go to the Poles, where it is cooler. As it turns out, more of them head west, where it is getting wetter.


Sure, some species, such as evergreens, are heading to the Poles to escape the heat. But others, like certain oaks and maple, are going west in search of rain. For the most part, "tree migrations are moisture related," said Songlin Fei, associate professor at Purdue's University's department of forestry and natural resources, who has studied this phenomenon in recent years. "Precipitation has a stronger near-term impact on species shift than temperature."

Both trends are a consequence of climate change, which is producing more heat and heavier rainfall, fueling deforestation. This is worrisome, as forests soak up carbon from the atmosphere, and recent evidence suggests that soil is exhaling carbon dioxide faster than trees can take in. The migration of trees may help preserve individual species, but also threatens to destabilize forest ecosystems.

An oak tree. Pixabay

Fei analyzed the movement of 86 tree species from across the Eastern United States between 1980 and 2015 using using field data from obtained from the U.S. Forest Service. He found that 73 percent of tree species shifted to the west, while 62 percent moved poleward.

"The majority of the species move westward are broadleaf species that can better handle flood and drought, and have a large seed mass, which improves the seedling's ability to survive," he said. "One example of westward shift species is Scarlet Oak. Miss Scarlett 'gone with the wind,' but Scarlet Oak is 'gone with the rain.'"

A Scarlet Oak.Katja Schulz

Researchers compared the distribution of trees in 1980 and 2015, calculating the distance and direction of the trees' movement. During the more than three decades covered by the study, the mean annual temperature in the eastern United States, where they collected the data, rose around 0.3 degrees F on average, Fei said. The northern areas of that region saw among the largest temperature increases, he added. Precipitation patterns in the regions also changed during those years, as increasing heat spurred in widespread droughts, another reason for trees to gravitate toward the rain, he said.

The scientists' initial findings appeared in a study published in the journal Science Advances last year. Fei and his team currently are working to update the earlier results, hoping to publish their new findings soon. The researchers have concluded that changes in rainfall and temperature have put "the resilience and sustainability of various forest ecosystems across eastern United States in question," Fei said.

Changes in temperature and precipitation between the recent past (1951–1980) and the study period (1981–2014) across the eastern United States.Science Advances

To be clear, the study focused only on the eastern half the country, meaning tree species didn't move to, for example, California, Oregon or Washington. In fact, the transition was gradual. "Species, on average, moved about 10 miles per decade, or about one county during the study period," Fei said.

The trees have picked up on the trends driven by climate change, moving from regions getting less rainfall than in the past to those that are getting more. Even though the Southeast still gets more rainfall than the Midwest, it's been receiving less in recent years than its historical average, Fei said. At the same time, rainfall has been increasing in the Midwest. "Reduction of moisture in the Southeast and increase of moisture in the Midwest is one of the major reasons caused the shift of species," he said.

Fei said it helped that the team could use real-world data for its analysis, and that they did not need to rely on traditional computer modeling. "It is not future predictions," he said. "Empirical data reveals the impact of climate change is happening on the ground now. It's in action."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Louisiana has been converted to a 1,000-bed field hospital for coronavirus patients to alleviate stress on local hospitals. Chris Graythen / Getty Images

An area in Louisiana whose predominantly black and brown residents are hard-hit by health problems from industry overdevelopment is experiencing one of the highest death rates from coronavirus of any county in the United States.

Read More Show Less
A woman lies in bed with the flu. marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A central player in the fight against the novel coronavirus is our immune system. It protects us against the invader and can even be helpful for its therapy. But sometimes it can turn against us.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Several flower species, including the orchid, can recover quickly from severe injury, scientists have found. cunfek / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Calling someone a delicate flower may not sting like it used to, according to new research. Scientists have found that many delicate flowers are actually remarkably hearty and able to bounce back from severe injury.

Read More Show Less
A Boeing 727 flies over approach lights with a trail of black-smoke from the engines on April 9, 2018. aviation-images.com / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With global air travel at a near standstill, the airline industry is looking to rewrite the rules it agreed to tackle global emissions. The Guardian reports that the airline is billing it as a matter of survival, while environmental activists are accusing the industry of trying to dodge their obligations.

Read More Show Less
A National Guard member works on election day at a polling location on April 7, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. Andy Manis / Getty Images.

ByJulia Baumel

The outbreak of COVID-19 across the U.S. has touched every facet of our society, and our democracy has been no exception.

Read More Show Less