New Study: New England forests face more precipitation, milder winters

In Vermont and across New England and northern New York, many economically and culturally important tree species and forest communities will face increasing threats under warmer and more variable conditions, according to a new assessment of the vulnerability of the region’s forests to climate change led by the USDA Forest Service.

A team that included Forest Service scientists, National Forest managers, state natural resource managers, other federal agencies, university researchers, and conservation organizations contributed to the report, “New England and Northern New York Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis: A Report from the New England Climate Change Response Framework Project.” The report was published by the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station.

“Forests in Vermont and across the northeastern United States are under increasing stress from changing temperatures and precipitation regimes and increasing prevalence of invasive insects and disease, generating considerable uncertainty about how to best sustainably manage these resources into the future,” said Anthony D’Amato, second author on the report and a forest researcher at the University of Vermont Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “This report provides important accounting of the vulnerability of different forest types to these future changes.”

Of the nearly 53 million acres of land in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and northern New York, about 40 million acres are forest. Maple/beech/birch and spruce/fir are the most abundant forest-type groups across the area, and private individuals and organizations own about 80 percent of the forest land.

“Forests are vital to a whole spectrum of human needs, from the economy and jobs to recreation and clean air and water,” said Tony Ferguson, Director of the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. “Forest Service scientists and our partners are providing tools that enable everyone managing the region’s forests to begin managing now for resilient and sustainable landscapes.”

“We see evidence that climate change is having an impact on the region’s forests, with damage from extreme precipitation events and insect pests,” said Maria Janowiak, the report’s lead author and a climate specialist with the Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. “Future changes could dramatically alter the landscape that characterizes the region.”

The vulnerability assessment documents past and current conditions, and summarizes the potential impacts of climate change on forests in the region.

Key findings

— Over decades, conditions will deteriorate for iconic tree species in the region such as red spruce, sugar maple, paper birch, northern white cedar, and balsam fir. Habitat conditions will become more favorable for species such as black cherry, yellow-poplar, and several oak and hickory species, all trees that are currently found south of New England.

— Precipitation is projected to increase in winter and spring across a range of climate scenarios. Intense precipitation events are expected to continue to become more frequent.

— Winters will continue to become shorter and milder. Snowfall is projected to continue to decline across the assessment area, with more winter precipitation falling as rain.

— Soils are projected to be frozen for shorter periods during winter.

Led by the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS), the assessment is part of the Climate Change Response Framework project, a collaborative approach among researchers, managers, and landowners to incorporate climate change considerations into forest management.  UVM's Rubenstein School is a charter member of NIACS and collaborates with NIACS and the Department of Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center in developing adaptive management strategies to address impacts of global change on forests in the northeastern U.S.

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