Researchers Work to Understand Climate Change Impacts to Vegetation in the Northern Rockies

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In an attempt to assess vulnerability of tree species and biome types in the Northern Rocky Mountains, partners of the North Central Climate Science Center (NC CSC) are creating models that combine climate data and scale-relevant land management options.

A forest of whitebark pine trees.

A forest of whitebark pine trees.

(Credit: Diane Renkin, The National Park Service.)

As climate change impacts begin to manifest in the north central US, researchers are actively working to understand the vulnerability of key species. Climate change will impact plants directly in terms of establishment, growth, and death of populations, but it will also have an indirect effect as the result of disturbances such as fire and pests, competition for resources, pollination, and seed dispersal. Models that incorporate climate may not predict exactly which species will thrive in the future, but they may provide one filter for where particular species are likely to be most successful. Forest managers cannot manipulate large-scale climate change to suit certain vegetation types, but they may be able to use their knowledge of suitability to alter disturbances, establishment, and interactions with other species.

In an attempt to assess vulnerability of tree species and biome types in the Northern Rocky Mountains, partners of the North Central Climate Science Center (NC CSC) are creating models that combine climate data and scale-relevant land management options. Impacts team lead Andy Hansen is working alongside Linda Phillips (Montana State University) to sample 11 subalpine tree species and 8 biome types to run under IPCC emissions scenario models. According to their findings, subalpine species will substantially lose suitability, particularly whitebark pine which is projected to face a drop from 21% suitability currently down to just .5-7% by 2100. Chang et al. (2014) focused specifically on this species in his own research, arguing that restoration strategies including strategic planting of seedlings and control of competing vegetation may be necessary to maintain species like whitebark pine under more extreme climate scenarios.

A decrease in whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could impact black bear habitat, soil stability, and snowmelt runoff. Climate suitability shifts also come alongside mountain pine beetle infestations and white pine blister rust, both of which alter whitebark pine's success as a species. Meanwhile, some vegetation types including Ponderosa pine and grand fir are projected to increase their suitability range significantly. Climate change will ultimately mean an upward elevation movement for species currently in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but rocky terrain in this area will further constrain suitability. Climate change is also expected to favor conditions for certain pests and disturbances such as mountain pine beetle, which adds extra management challenges for decision makers. Through the use of vulnerability studies, an improved understanding of climate suitability, and the insertion of climate change data into future models, researchers hope to help prioritize tree species in line with climate adaptation strategies in the Greater Yellowstone region.

Learn more about NC CSC funded research on this topic:

Informing Implementation of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee’s (GYCC) Whitebark Pine (WBP) Strategy Based on Climate Sciences, Ecological Forecasting, and Valuation of WBP-Related Ecosystem Services

Impacts and Vulnerability: Climate, Ecosystem Processes, and Vegetation in the NC CSC Region: Ecological Impacts Foundational Science for the North Central Climate Science Center