New England and Northern New York Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis: A Report from the New England Climate Change Response Framework Project

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Forest ecosystems will face direct and indirect impacts from a changing climate over the 21st century. This assessment evaluates the vulnerability of forest ecosystems across the New England region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, northern New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) under a range of future climates. We synthesized and summarized information on the contemporary landscape, provided information on past climate trends, and described a range of projected future climates. This information was used to parameterize and run multiple vegetation impact models, which provided a range of potential vegetative responses to climate. Finally, we brought these results before a multidisciplinary panel of scientists and natural resource professionals familiar with the forests of this region to assess ecosystem vulnerability through a formal consensus-based expert elicitation process. Observed trends in climate over the historical record from 1901 through 2011 show that the mean annual temperature has increased across the region by 2.4 °F, with even greater warming during winter. Precipitation patterns also changed during this time, with a slight trend toward greater annual precipitation and a substantial increase in extreme precipitation events. Projected climate trends using downscaled global climate model data indicate a potential increase in mean annual temperature of 3 to 8 °F for the assessment area by 2100. Projections for precipitation indicate an increase in fall and winter precipitation, and spring and summer precipitation projections vary by scenario. We identified potential impacts on forests by incorporating these future climate projections into three forest impact models (DISTRIB, LINKAGES, and LANDIS PRO). Model projections suggest that many northern and boreal species, including balsam fir, red spruce, and black spruce, may fare worse under future conditions, but other species may benefit from projected changes in climate. Published literature on climate impacts related to wildfire, invasive species, and forest pests and diseases also contributed to the overall determination of climate change vulnerability. We assessed vulnerability for eight forest communities in the assessment area. The assessment was conducted through a formal elicitation process with 20 scientists and resource managers from across the area, who considered vulnerability in terms of the potential impacts and the adaptive capacity for an individual community. Montane spruce-fir, low-elevation spruce-fir, and lowland mixed conifer forests were determined to be the most vulnerable communities. Central hardwoods, transition hardwoods, and pitch pine-scrub oak forests were perceived as having lower vulnerability to projected changes in climate. These projected changes in climate and the associated impacts and vulnerabilities will have important implications for economically valuable timber species, forest-dependent animals and plants, recreation, and long-term natural resource planning.

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