Climate change vulnerability assessment of forests in the Southwest USA

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Thorne, James H., Hyeyeong Choe, Peter A. Stine, Jeanne C. Chambers, Andrew Holguin, Amber C. Kerr, and Mark W. Schwartz
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Climate change effects are already apparent in some Southwestern US forests and are expected to intensify in the coming decades, via direct (temperature, precipitation) and indirect (fire, pests, pathogens) stressors. We grouped Southwestern forests into ten major types to assess their climate exposure by 2070 using two global climate models (GCMs) and two emission scenarios representing wetter or drier conditions and current or lowered emission levels. We estimate future climate exposure over forests covering 370,144 km2 as the location and proportion of each type projected to experience climate conditions that fall outside 99% of those they currently occupy. By late century, 27–77% is climatically exposed under wetter or drier current emission levels, while lowered emission levels produce 10–50% exposure, respectively. This difference points to the benefits of reducing emissions from the RCP8.5 to the RCP4.5 track, with regard to forest retention. Exposed areas common to all four climate futures include central Arizona and the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Vulnerability assessments also comprise sensitivity and adaptive capacity, which we scored subjectively by forest type according to the number of key stressors they are sensitive to and the resilience conferred by life history traits of their dominant tree species. Under the 2070 RCP8.5 emissions, four forest types are critically and six are highly vulnerable under the hotter GCM; and eight are highly and two moderately vulnerable under the wetter GCM. We discuss forest management adaptation strategies and the barriers to and co-benefits of such plans.


Thorne, James H., Hyeyeong Choe, Peter A. Stine, Jeanne C. Chambers, Andrew Holguin, Amber C. Kerr, and Mark W. Schwartz. 2017. “Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of Forests in the Southwest USA.” Climatic Change, July, 1–16. doi:10.1007/s10584-017-2010-4.