Where No (Observed) Forest has Gone Before: New Patterns in Forest Response to Climate Change and Variability

Friday, 19 December 2014
Steven McNulty1, Ge Sun1, Johnny L Boggs1 and Eric J Ward2, (1)USDA Forest Svc, Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, Raleigh, NC, United States, (2)North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, Raleigh, NC, United States
Insect outbreaks, wildfire, and drought have directly or indirectly impacted forest health, productivity and water use long before the advent of modern forestry practices. However, climate change may be acerbating these impacts are causing land managers to reconsider the use and timing of management tools. However, even as new methods are being devised to combat negative drought impacts, the forest response to chronic and increasingly severe episodic drought may be changing. Historically, the weakest (e.g., suppressed, understory) trees were the first to succumb to stress while the strongest (e.g., dominant, fast growing). However, recent studies have suggested that a combination of chronic and increasingly extreme episodic stress may be causing hereunto unobserved patterns in forest mortality with the more vigorously growing trees having higher rates of mortality than slower growing, more generally stressed individuals. I suggest that the forests have not altered their response to stress, but only that the level of stress, and the forest response to that stress has not previously been observed in recorded history. This extension of the forest stress response continuum has very significant implications to forest management under drought and associated disturbance. Therefore, this paper explores the causes and implications for maintaining forest resilience and sustainability under an increasingly variable climate.