Climate change alters forest composition

Sugar maples are seeing population decreases across the U.S. due to climate change, making fiery autumn leaves harder to find. (Mark K./flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 28, 2017

Beech trees are crowding out other important tree species in northeastern United States woodlands because of climate change, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of Maine tracked beech, sugar and red maple tree data in the northeastern U.S. from 1983 to 2014. The U.S. Forest Service data showed that beech tree populations have increased significantly over the thirty years while the other tree species decreased. The study found that hotter temperatures and increased precipitation, both caused my climate change, allowed for beech trees’ population boom.

Beech trees have important advantages over the species that used to dominate the area. First, they often shade out other species competing for sunlight. Second, the local deer prefer the taste of sugar and red maple saplings to beech ones. The changing climate is changing the composition of forests and managers will have to adapt, researchers say.

Dr. Aaron Weiskittel is a forest biometrics and modeling professor at University of Maine and one of the study’s authors. “There’s no easy answer to this one,” he said to the Associated Press, “It has a lot of people scratching their heads. Future conditions seem to be favoring the beech, and managers are going to have to find a good solution to fix it.”

Sugar maples, one of the important species declining in the northeastern U.S., are also expected to decline in numbers in the northern Midwest due to climate change. A twenty-year study published in January found that as global temperatures continue to rise, sugar maple growth in the northern Midwest will be stunted and the species population will decrease.

Researchers point out that forests soak up 25 percent of the greenhouse gases that are emitted each year, so continuing to learn about how forests will respond to the changing climate should be prioritized.

Iowa State students learn about ecology thru on-campus prairie

The Oakridge Research and Educational Prairie is a 1.6 acre prairie on the Iowa State University campus. (Brent Mortensen/Facebook)
Nick Fetty | September 25, 2014

Students at Iowa State University are learning about ecology and other sciences hands on through the Oakridge Research and Educational Prairie right on campus.

The prairie was established in March 2012 as a way to “test how mammalian herbivores affect and are affected by plant diversity.” The researchers planted roughly an acre and a half of prairie on land that was previously used for rotating crops. Sections of the prairie varied from roughly 14 prairie species to as many as 51 species. Early in the project the prairie was inundated with agricultural weeds but after the first couple of years the prairie plants were expected to establish themselves. However, “[n]ext year, the prairie will be burned and dead plant material will be cleared out, killing the invasive species that affect it.”

The prairie has gone through major changes since it was established in 2012 (Brent Mortensen/Facebook)

A 2012 study of small mammals living in the prairie concluded that the prairie vole was the most-common species with 122 of these rodents captured then released. This was followed by the western harvest mouse (97) then the deer mouse (79). However future studies will need to conducted “to determine the effects of plant diversity on small mammal populations.”

In addition to studying plant and animal life, the prairie also teaches students “how to retain and improve productive soil.”