Central Appalachians Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis: A Report from the Central Appalachians Climate Change Response Framework Project

Led by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, this assessment evaluates the climate change vulnerability of forested ecosystems covering 18.9 million acres in the Central Appalachian Broadleaf Forest-Coniferous Forest-Meadow and Eastern Broadleaf Forest Provinces of Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland. Designed to be a resource for forest managers, the report summarizes the current state of forests in the region including threats and management trends, projected climate impacts, and the results of a climate vulnerability assessment of local tree species and forest ecosystems.  

Climate change projections and trends (extreme temperature, intense precipitation, severe weather, flooding, storms, snow cover, drought, growing season length) were used to model the potential impacts to species and ecosystems. These projections were also used to assess the vulnerability and factors affecting adaptive capacity of the forest systems.

The potential climate impacts on forests were analyzed with three forest impact models (one species distribution model, DISTRIB of the Climate Change Tree Atlas, and two forest simulation process models, LINKAGES and LANDIS PRO). All three models project a decrease in suitability for northern tree species and an increase in suitability for southern tree species within the assessment area.

Vulnerability was estimated for nine forest ecosystems through the year 2100. Chapter 6 summarizes the projected climate change impacts to forest ecosystems generally, and then offers detailed vulnerability determinations for each forest system considered in this assessment:

  • Appalachian (Hemlock)/ Northern Hardwood Forest
  • Dry Calcareous Forest, Woodland, and Glade
  • Dry Oak and Oak/Pine Forest and Woodland
  • Dry/Mesic Oak Forest
  • Large Stream Floodplain and Riparian Forest
  • Mixed Mesophytic and Cove Forest
  • North-Central Interior Beech/Maple Forest
  • Small Stream Riparian Forest
  • Spruce/Fir Forest

Appalachian (Hemlock)/ Northern Hardwood, Spruce/Fir, and Large Stream Floodplain and Riparian forests were found to have the highest vulnerability to climate change and are expected to experience the most negative impacts such as reduced habitat suitability and amplified stressors (eg. drought, pests, wildfire). The Dry Oak and Oak/Pine Forest system, however, is expected to do well under future climate scenarios with stable or increased habitat suitability for various tree species.

The adaptive capacity of the forest systems was also analyzed, where higher adaptive capacity tends to reduce vulnerability to climate change, and lower adaptive capacity tends to increase vulnerability. Among others, adaptive capacity findings include that low-diversity systems are at greater risk; disturbance- and fire-adapted ecosystems will be more resilient to climate change; and dispersal distance or topography may constrain the migration of some species in response to climate change.

The final chapter outlines Management Implications of these climate vulnerabilities on the region’s forests in terms of a variety of forest-related ecological, social, and economic topics such as  Wildlife, Plant Species, Fire and Fuels, Infrastructure, Forest Products, Forest Carbon, Recreation, Cultural Resources, Urban Forests, and Planning for Conservation and Natural Resource Management, among others. Rather than making recommendations for management actions, this chapter points to a separate resource created to assist land managers in a decision-making process to adapt to climate impacts: Forest Adaptation Resources (Adaptation Workbook). 

This assessment was completed as a part of the USFS Climate Change Response Framework project. The Framework is a collaborative of scientists, managers, and landowners addressing climate change and natural resource management. It provides an integrated set of tools, partnerships, and actions to support climate-informed conservation and forest management.


Publication Date: February 2015

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