Changing Forests in a Changing Climate
Our winters are getting warmer. Maybe you’ve been enjoying the milder weather or perhaps you’re pining for the colder days of winters past. If you find yourself in the latter camp, you’re not alone. Our local trees and forests rely on cold, consistent winter temperatures to stay healthy and resilient, and so do the insects and other wildlife that rely on trees for their survival.
Fluctuating winter temperatures caused by climate change produce intermittent freeze-thaw cycles and more frequent heavy rain events and ice storms. We also see earlier spring thaws, prolonged heat waves and droughts, and longer growing seasons. Most of the tree species in our local forests are adapted for historically colder weather conditions found in Ontario. As these conditions change, so will our forests.
Extreme weather events will cause more large-scale disturbances and destruction. Opportunistic invasive species such as Common Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard can colonize these disturbed areas, outcompeting native understory plants.
Invasive Garlic Mustard
Extreme summer heat and long periods of drought increase water transfer from the trees to the air (also known as evapotranspiration). This depletes trees of moisture. Under these conditions, trees focus on survival rather than putting out new growth and are unable to take advantage of longer growing seasons. Forest composition will change. Shorter-lived, faster-growing species will become more prominent and native coniferous species, like Hemlock, White Spruce and Tamarack, will decline.
Native White Spruce
The increased frequency of freeze-thaw cycles and milder winter temperatures also leads to greater browse damage by wildlife and early bud bursts. Premature bud growth can disrupt forest and wildlife synchronicity and prove fatal for some insects that rely on these buds for food.
Although we see these changes happening already, there are several actions landowners can take to protect our forests against climate change for future generations:
- Maintain healthy tree cover density by planting different native species.
- Promote tree age diversity by caring for older trees while allowing for new growth.
- Expand tree cover and build forest connectivity by planting trees to reduce fragmented forest patches.
- Properly manage plantation forests by thinning trees to improve growing conditions and promote the regeneration of native tree and shrub species.
Do you have a forest on your property or have questions about proper forest management? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
By CVC’s Alastair Biscaia, Forest Management Technician