Linking the climate-ecology attribution chain

Guest commentary by Jim Bouldin, Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis

Linking the regional climate-ecology attribution chain in the western United States

Many are obviously curious about whether certain current regional environmental changes are traceable to global climate change. There are a number of large-scale changes that clearly qualify—rapid warming of the arctic/sub-arctic regions for example, and earlier spring onset in the northern hemisphere and the associated phenological changes in plants and animals. But as one moves to smaller scales of space or time, global-to-local connections become more difficult to establish. This is due to the combined effect of the resolutions of climate models, the intrinsic variability of the system and the empirical climatic, environmental, or ecological data—the signal to noise ratio of possible causes and observed effects. Thus recent work by ecologists, climate scientists, and hydrologists in the western United States relating global climate change, regional climate change, and regional ecological change is of great significance. Together, their results show an increasing ability to link the chain at smaller and presumably more viscerally meaningful and politically tractable scales.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, a paper in Science by Phil van Mantgem of the USGS, and others, showed that over the last few decades, background levels of tree mortality have been increasing in undisturbed old-growth forests in the western United States, without the accompanying increase in tree “recruitment” (new trees) that would balance the ledger over time. Background mortality is the regular ongoing process of tree death, un-related to the more visible, catastrophic mortality caused by such events as fires, insect attacks, and windstorms, and typically is less than 1% per year. It is that portion of tree death due to the direct and indirect effects of tree competition, climate (often manifest as water stress), and old age. Because many things can affect background mortality, van Mantgem et. al. were very careful to minimize the potential for other possible explanatory variables via their selection of study sites, while still maintaining a relatively long record over a wide geographic area. These other possible causes include, especially, increases in crowding (density; a notorious confounding factor arising from previous disturbances and/or fire suppression), and edge effects (trees close to an

opening experience a generally warmer and drier micro-climate than those in the forest interior).

They found that in each of three regions, the Pacific Northwest, California, and the Interior West, mortality rates have doubled in 17 to 29 years (depending on location), and have been doing so across all dominant species, all size classes, and all elevations. The authors show with downscaled climate information that the increasing mortality rates likely corresponds to summer soil moisture stress increases over that time that are driven by increases in temperature with little or no change in precipitation in these regions. Fortunately, natural background mortality rates in western forests are typically less than 0.5% per year, so rate doublings over ~20-30 years, by themselves, will not have large immediate impacts. What the longer term changes will be is an open question however, depending on future climate and tree recruitment/mortality rates. Nevertheless, the authors have shown clearly that mortality rates have been increasing over the last ~30 years. Thus the $64,000 question: are these changes attributable in part or all to human-induced global warming?

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