Climate Change Driving Trees Northward


American Institute of Biological Sciences
Public release date: 3-Dec-2007

Contact: Jennifer Williams

Climate change predicted to drive trees northward
Ranges may decrease sharply if trees cannot disperse in altered conditions

The most extensive and detailed study to date of 130 North American tree species concludes that expected climate change this century could shift their ranges northward by hundreds of kilometers and shrink the ranges by more than half. The study, by Daniel W. McKenney of the Canadian Forest Service and his colleagues, is reported in the December issue of BioScience.

McKenney’s study is based on an extensive data-gathering effort and thus more comprehensive than studies based on published range maps. It includes data from Canada as well as from the United States. Observations of where trees are found are used to define the “climate envelope” of each species.

If the trees were assumed to respond to climate change by dispersing their progeny to more favorable locations, McKenney and colleagues found, ranges of the studied species would move northward by some 700 kilometers and decrease in size by an average of 12 percent (with some increasing while others decreased). If the species were assumed unable to disperse, the average expected range shift was 320 kilometers, and “drastic” range reductions of 58 percent were projected. The authors believe that most species will probably fall somewhere between these two extremes of ability to disperse.

The climate measures studied were chosen to represent important gradients for plants: heat and moisture. Two climate change scenarios were modeled. One assumed that carbon dioxide emissions would start to decrease during the coming century, the other that they would continue to increase. Each scenario was investigated with three well-known models of global climate, with broadly similar results. The authors note that their study investigated only a sample of the 700 or so tree species in North America, and that under climate change, new species might colonize the southern part of the continent from tropical regions. A companion article by the same authors provides more detail about their climate envelope method as applied to one species, the sugar maple.


BioScience is the monthly journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). BioScience publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles covering a wide range of biological fields, with a focus on “Organisms from Molecules to the Environment.” The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an umbrella organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents some 200 member societies and organizations with a combined membership of about 250,000.

The complete list of research articles in the December 2007 issue of BioScience is as follows:

Beyond Traditional Hardiness Zones: Using Climate Envelopes to Map Plant Range Limits. Daniel W. McKenney, John H. Pedlar, Kevin Lawrence, Kathy Campbell, and Michael F. Hutchinson

Potential Impacts of Climate Change on the Distribution of North American Trees. Daniel W. McKenney, John H. Pedlar, Kevin Lawrence, Kathy Campbell, and Michael F. Hutchinson

The Role of Animal-derived Remedies as Complementary Medicines in Brazil. Rômulo R. N. Alves, Ierecê L. Rosa, and Gindomar G. Santana

The Beginning of a New Invasive Plant: A History of the Ornamental Callery Pear in the United States. Theresa M. Culley and Nicole A. Hardiman

Evaluating Existing and Emerging Connections among Interdisciplinary Researchers. Pamela Sankar, Nora L. Jones, and Jason Karlawish

Biodiversity Studies and Their Foundation in Taxonomic Scholarship. Joseph M. Raczkowski and John W. Wenzel

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