Warmer temps affecting Vermont trees

Published: Mar. 12, 2018 at 7:52 AM EDT
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A study of New England forests has scientists worried about warmer weather hurting trees.

Scientists say in the last century, winters have warmed up by three degrees and that number could double in the next 100 years. Professor Tony D'Amato, with the University of Vermont, says that could change what Vermont forests look like. He says trees that like it cold will struggle to function when it’s warm. For example, the high-elevation spruce firs in southern Vermont or the classic Christmas trees, balsam firs.

"The seedlings often need kind of some cold cues, as well as certain level of moisture," D'Amato said. "If they're no longer getting those cues because it's not cold enough or when the spring begins, there's no longer snow on the ground to melt and give them that moisture they need early on to germinate."

Bugs could also be a problem. D'Amato says warmer temps would allow some pests to thrive and take over. For the most part, he says trees are in pretty good shape, for now.

"Really the changes that we see going forward are going to be really starting to show up maybe 50 to 100 years out from now," said D’Amato. "A lot of our species are able to deal with the changes. It's more of the extremes that we're worried about-- these major swings where we go from cold one day to hot the next day."

He says he doesn't fear forests will disappear, but that some tree species could be lost, while others change.

"We'll always have forests in place because we do have this diversity, but we may start losing either the characteristic species or losing them at certain sizes," said D’Amato.

It's not just the trees that could be affected. D'Amato says wildlife that depends on a certain habitat, like the Bicknell's thrush, could suffer if the trees they live in struggle to survive.

D'Amato says there are things scientists are doing to help keep forests healthy. That includes taking a look at forests to make sure there’s diversity, with several types of specifies and different sizes. That could mean planting trees.

"What we can be doing is looking at our forests a bit more - through a climate lens," said D’Amato. "When I look at an area, does a mix of species all have the same sensitivity to temperature? Does it make sense to try to favor certain species over others that might be better able to adapt to those conditions."

The New England Society of American Forester's Convention is in about two weeks. D'Amato says they'll talk about the results of forest study and ways to work together to keep the forest healthy.