Oregon’s Forests in the Face of Climate Change
Our changing climate will affect how forests recover from wildfire
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When forests experience large and severe burns that leave few trees alive, the forest takes longer to naturally recover. To make matters worse, newly established tree seedlings may have trouble germinating and surviving in climate conditions that are different now than when the forest was originally established. As the climate continues to become warmer and drier, our forests will be dealt a double blow: longer periods of drought that raise the probability of large, high severity fires that leave few seed trees behind—and climate conditions in which the new seedlings simply cannot establish and grow.
In some western U.S. forests, Dr. Kemp and her colleagues have started to observe significantly fewer trees regenerating after recent wildfires where average climate conditions have become warmer and drier. This is especially true in the areas on the border between dense forest and shrublands or areas with less trees. In these places, shifts may already be underway as a result of climate change, and that change is being expedited by wildfires.
Will Oregon’s burned forests look different in the future as the result of climate change? The answer is likely yes, but it’s complicated. In some areas, forests may eventually transition to become less dense forests. Other areas may no longer be forested. On a positive note, where trees are replaced by grasses or shrubs in burned areas, this creates unique and valuable habitat that supports a suite of other species, such as pollinators, elk and migratory birds.