Stressful forest in the western United States. Credit: William Underreg

Planting a tree seems to be a good thing for the environment. Ultimately, trees absorb carbon dioxide, offsetting some of the emissions that contribute to climate change.

But all the carbon in the world’s trees and forests could be released back into the atmosphere if the trees burn in a forest fire. Trees also stop clearing carbon dioxide from the air if they die from drought or insect damage.

The likelihood of these threats affecting forests is growing across the country, according to a new study in Environmental letterswhich makes relying on forests to absorb carbon emissions a much riskier prospect.

“Forests in the United States could look dramatically different by the end of the century,” said William Underreg, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences. “Heavier and more frequent fires and disturbances have a huge impact on our landscapes. We are likely to lose forests in some parts of the western United States because of these disruptions, but much of that depends on how quickly we deal with climate change. “

Forest fires, drought and insects

Researchers have modeled the risk of trees dying from fire, climate stress (heat and / or drought) and insect damage to forests in the United States, predicting how these risks could increase in the 21st century.

See their findings in an interactive map here.

By 2099, models have found that the risks of forest fires in the United States can increase between four and 14 times, depending on different carbon scenarios. The risks of tree death associated with climate stress and insect mortality can double in about the same time.

But in these same models, human action to tackle climate change is of paramount importance – reducing the burden of climate change has drastically reduced fires, droughts and forest extinction caused by insects.

“Climate change will exacerbate these three major disruptions in the United States,” said Andereg. “We have seen devastating seasons of increasing fires over the last few years. Overall, we expect the Western United States to be most affected by all three. And they are also somewhat interconnected. Really hot and dry years, driven by climate change, tend to lead to many fires, tree deaths and insect outbreaks. But here too we have the opportunity. Rapidly tackling climate change can help keep our forests and landscapes healthy. ”

Accumulation, climate change and the case of social distancing among trees

More information:
Future climate risks from stress, insects and forest fires in the United States, Environmental letters (2022). DOI: 10.1111 / ele.14018

Provided by the University of Utah

Quote: Climate change increases the risk of tree death (2022, 12 May), extracted on 12 May 2022 from

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