Trees Aren't Adapting to Climate Change as Predicted

trees form a canopy of leaves against a blue sky

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Numerous studies have shown the crucial role Earth's forests play in storing carbon and mitigating the effects of global warming. But, according to the latest research, forests may be less capable of coping with climate change as previously thought. As temperatures rise, regions of favorable growing conditions shift towards the poles, experts expected plant species would migrate to survive, though it turns out not to be the case.

Duke University professor James S. Clark, a leading expert on how climate change impacts trees, says that most forests in the eastern U.S. aren't migrating as effectively as was once believed. Instead of inching north towards higher altitudes and more familiar conditions, research suggests that 60 percent of plant species were experiencing a contraction of habitat. Only 21 percent showed some movement north.

"Many models had suggested that trees will migrate rapidly to higher latitudes and elevations in response to warming temperatures, but evidence for a consistent, climate-driven northward migration is essentially absent in this large analysis," Clark tells UPI.

"Warm zones have shifted northward by up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) in some parts of the eastern United States, but our results do not inspire confidence that tree populations are tracking those changes."

It may be too soon to tell whether Clark's findings are unique to forests in the eastern U.S., or if tree species across the planet will find climate change similarly difficult to cope with. There was once some cold comfort in the notion that despite the nefarious effects of global warming on Earth's delicate ecosystems, plant life was capable of adapting via migration. Unfortunately, in lieu of evidence to the contrary, we can now count forests among the likely casualties of a warming world.