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Climate change likely to reshape vegetation across North America's protected areas

Date: May 23, 2019

Quantifying the potential for existing vegetation types to shift under a changing climate for 22 large and iconic protected areas across North America


Background

National parks, wilderness areas, and nature reserves were created to preserve a sample of pristine ecosystems, but even the most remote protected areas face serious threats from climate change. Managers would benefit from a better understanding how ecosystems within protected areas may respond to global warming.  

Research

We evaluated how climate change may affect vegetation in 22 of the largest and most iconic protected areas across North America. We mapped the potential distributions of vegetation under mid- and late-century climate which we then compared to current vegetation distributions. Our results suggest that all protected areas may experience some vegetation shifts and that half of the protected areas may have very different vegetation by late-21st century compared to contemporary conditions. The general trend is towards vegetation associated with warmer or drier climates, such as forests transitioning away from cold montane conifer to more temperate conifer forests. Near complete losses of alpine communities are anticipated at the highest elevations and high latitudes, to be replaced with coniferous forest. At low elevation and latitudes, vegetation associated with novel climate conditions may form entirely new communities. These potential shifts are of great concern for conservation, as such changes imply a cascade of ecological responses for the flora and fauna dependent upon existing vegetation communities. Our findings highlight the challenges managers may face to sustain biodiversity in key protected areas across North America. 

Key Findings

  • The majority of protected areas examined may experience substantial vegetation changes by the end of the 21st century.
  • We anticipate trends towards vegetation associated with warmer or drier climates with cascading ecological responses for the flora and fauna.
  • We present fine-scale maps of future vegetation to help envision the future challenges for native vegetation and the species dependent upon such resources.
  • These maps may aid in building conservation strategies and climate adaptation measures to conserve biodiversity across North American protected areas. 

Potential changes in vegetation distribution in Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, and adjacent Forest Service wilderness areas.
Potential changes in vegetation distribution in Yellowstone and Grand Teton NP, adjacent Forest Service wilderness areas: (a) the baseline period and years 2055 and 2085 of vegetation, (b) vegetation composition for each time period, (c) projected shifts

Potential changes in vegetation distribution in a large wilderness complex in central Idaho: (a) baseline period and years 2055 and 2085, (b) percent vegetation composition, (c) projected shifts. Wilderness areas: Frank Church – River of no Return, Gospel
Potential changes in vegetation distribution in a large wilderness complex in central Idaho: (a) baseline period and years 2055 and 2085, (b) percent vegetation composition, (c) projected shifts.
 

Featured Publications

Holsinger, Lisa M. ; Parks, Sean A. ; Parisien, Marc-Andre ; Miller, Carol L. ; Batllori, Enric ; Moritz, Max A. , 2019
Batllori, Enric ; Parisien, Marc-Andre ; Parks, Sean A. ; Moritz, Max A. ; Miller, Carol L. , 2017


External Partners: 
Marc-André Parisien (Canadian Forest Service, collaborator)
Enric Batllori (Autonomous University of Barcelona, collaborator)
Max Moritz (University of California Santa Barbara, collaborator)