Maples on the Move

Unless trees are wondrously furtive, I’m pretty sure they don’t travel. But their species ranges can. A report from the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station indicates that due to climate change, 70% of Eastern tree species have already begun to shift their ranges to the north. The authors admit this is not a new trend, but rather the hastening of an old one:

“Tree ranges in ancient times certainly shifted according to changing climates, but the changes were relatively slow. Fossil plant and pollen records show tree species’ ranges shifted northward a rate of 50 km per century as temperatures rose after the retreat of the North American ice cap. Such shifts are sometimes called ‘tree migration,’ but they are really changes in a species’ population density and range. The more accurate term is ‘tree range migration.’”

OK, so Mother Nature apparently moved tree species an average of 50 kilometers (31 miles) every hundred years. This helps put in perspective a study report entitled “Shifting with climate? Evidence for recent changes in tree species distribution at high latitudes,” published in the journal Ecosphere in July 2014.

The study, conducted by Laura Boisvert-Marsh,  Catherine Périé and  Sylvie de Blois, examined 11 tree species common to eastern North America: Balsam Fir, Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, Paper Birch, American Beech, Hop-Hornbeam, White Spruce, Black Spruce, Trembling Aspen, and Eastern White Cedar. Specifically, they looked at range alterations between 1970 and 2014.

I admit that this is a highly technical paper, and I may have pulled a muscle trying to understand it all. The study assessed changes at several different latitude points, and also compared sapling redistribution with that of larger trees. In addition, the authors noted that factors other than climate change no doubt had an effect on tree range migration as well.

However, their report concluded that “Five out of the eleven species examined (Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Paper Birch, American Beech, and Trembling Aspen) showed significant northward migration.” What stood out to me was that taken as a whole, they found that since 1970, “The average overall [range] shift was 111.2 km [69 miles] at 49° N.” Contrast that with historical natural movement of 50 km in a century.

Scientists at the US Forest Service believe that by the end of the century, at least 8, and possibly as many as 27, tree species will have moved 200 kilometers (124 miles) north. In fact, they project that in the year 2100, sugar maple will exist almost exclusively in Canada.

There may well be exceptions. It’s possible that enclaves of species which are projected to move out of the region will be able to survive in isolated nooks and crannies of the Adirondacks and other similar terrain. Variation of slope and aspect in the mountains creates “Climate Refugia,” micro-habitats conducive to a broad spectrum of tree species. These refugia resist change – they are not immune to it, but adjustments happen more slowly there.

Change is sometimes good, but it’s always scary. Luckily, we do have agency in determining our future. According to the Canadian Association for Educational Resources, “By 2100 the atmospheric CO2 concentration (the gas responsible for most temperature change) will be between 540 and 970 ppm,” depending how much carbon dioxide we pump into the air.

The huge discrepancy between those two numbers offers us a chance to slow the rate at which tree species march northward. It’s hard to feel motivated when we know our decisions are a drop in the pool. Well, drops matter. It takes something like 50 billion drops to fill an Olympic-size pool.  If each Earthling coughed up (figuratively, please) 6.4 drops, it would be full.

No matter where we live, everyone has access to a dropper of some sort. Maybe it’s trading our 4X4 for a car with snow tires. Maybe it’s planting trees. Or biking to work, switching to LED bulbs, or any number of other small acts. We are all experts on what that might look like in our lives. Every drop makes it less likely the next generation will ask “Hey Grandma (or Grandpa), tell me that story again about when maples grew here.”

Paul Hetzler is an ISA-Certified Arborist and a member of the Society of American Foresters, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, ISA-Ontario, and NYS Arborists. At the moment, he has no plans to migrate farther north.

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