Trees In The US Are Migrating

What does it mean for the future of large forests?

This article originally appeared on PRI’s Living on Earth.

Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

As the planet warms, many tree species in the eastern US are migrating.

Pines and spruce are heading north, while oaks and maples are heading west of their historical ranges, according to a recent study. In all, the newly published research confirms, 86 tree species in the eastern US are moving into new areas.

Trees don’t just pick up and move, of course. Their seeds tend to spread in one direction or another, depending on local conditions, and saplings will have more success in places best suited to their natural traits.

Historically, trees have frequently shifted their range, Fei says, mostly due to the effects of glaciation or the retreat of glaciers. He points to studies that have tracked the movement of trees in New England — movement that was also driven by changing temperatures and precipitation. The difference, he says, is that those studies examined the movement of trees over thousands of years. Fei’s study looked at only a 30-year period, from 1985 to 2015.

The changes Fei has tracked would have happened over several thousand years, had nature taken its normal course and not been affected by changes in the climate due to human activity.

[This algorithm can identify every tree.]

Still unknown is to what degree the rapid movement of trees will change the ecological balance within large forest systems.

“In the current study, we are looking at individual trees. A forest is a composition of multiple species, which, in ecological terms, we call a ‘community,'” Fei explains. “So, we don’t know whether the community is currently vulnerable to breakdown because of the different directions of this shift by individual species.”

“We are interested in looking at how these communities are responding as a group. Are there certain community groups that are more vulnerable than others? This is what we are really interested in looking at next,” Fei says.

Meet the Writer

About Adam Wernick

Adam Wernick is a freelance writer for PRI.org. He is also a composer, music director and arranger. He’s based in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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