Ecologists have long predicted that climate change will send plants and animals uphill and towards the poles in search of familiar temperatures. Such movements have increasingly been documented around the world. But a study now shows that changing rainfall patterns may be driving some tree species in the eastern United States west, not north.
Songlin Fei, a forest ecologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and his colleagues tracked the shifting distributions of 86 types of trees using data collected by the US Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program during two periods: from 1980 to 1995 and between 2013 and 2015 for all states. They found more species heading west than north, probably partly because of changing precipitation patterns, the team reported on 17 May in Science Advances1. “That was a huge surprise for us,” says Fei.
Tree physiologist Leander Love-Anderegg at the University of Washington in Seattle says that the study did well to acknowledge these potentially confounding variables. “They point out that in the eastern US it is a really tricky question to pull out climate-related changes in forests, from forests getting older and the effects of fire suppression,” he says.
Whether the mechanisms are perfectly understood or not, knowing movement trends helps forest managers, Love-Anderegg says. “We live in an era of very rapid ecological change. In order to avoid some of the more drastic and negative consequences of that change — like massive forest fires and massive beetle outbreaks — we all have an interest in trying to predict change before it occurs.”
Read the full article in Nature | News