Drought in the Northern Forests

The Northern Forests of the Midwest and Northeast regions are home to a diversity of ecosystems and tree species. Anticipated climate change effects, such as increased temperatures, extended growing season, variable precipitation, reduced snowpack and earlier melt, and episodic precipitation events, can interact to increase drought risk and put stress on forest ecosystems. Droughts may impact the unique characteristics of these ecosystems, affecting forest vigor and productivity, carbon storage, and water yield and quality. 

The Midwest and Northeast regions are expected to receive increased annual precipitation, yet moisture stress may still be a concern for regional forests under a changing climate. 

Higher temperatures combined with altered seasonal precipitation and increased frequency of high-intensity heavy precipitation events may result in less available moisture during the growing season as climate change continues. The combination of high temperatures and lower recharge of water tables are projected to result in an increase of consecutive “dry” days by mid-century ().

   

 

 

Drought Impacts to Forests 

  • Increased temperatures and altered precipitation may increase moisture stress. Warmer temperatures willincrease water loss from plants and forest soils, requiring more precipitation to maintain water balance. Reducedwinter snow, earlier spring flows, and a greater concentration of precipitation in heavy precipitation events mayincrease moisture stress during the growing season.
  • Conditions may favor drought tolerant species, with frequent low severity drought. Species that are able to toleratehotter and drier conditions may be better adapted in areas where drought increases, making them more competitive.
  • Habitats may shift, as an effect of competition and drought. Drought tolerant species, such as pines and oaks, mayhave increased habitat in the future. Habitat for northern species in some areas will shift, presenting opportunities forsouthern tree species.
  • Low diversity forest systems are at a greater risk. Diverse ecosystems are generally more resilient to disturbancebecause there are many more options to respond to change.
  • Many invasive species, insect pests and pathogens will increase or become more severe and damaging.Warmer temperatures may help invasive species and pests expand into new areas. Drought and other stressors cancreate opportunities for non-native species and pests to invade.
  • Climate conditions will increase the risk of wildfire in parts of the Midwest by the end of the century. Risk is likely to be greater in forests that are under stress from other climate impacts or have fuel loads from pest-inducedmortality, blowdown events, or other disturbances.
  • Aquatic organisms could face increased stress from heat and reduced water quality. Reduced streamflow canconcentrate nutrients and sediments, warming waters more quickly. Some type of organisms, such as cold-water fishspecies, may be at greater risk.
  • Some forests will be more vulnerable than others. Drought will vary in duration and intensity across the NorthernForests, and forests will be affected differently based on degree of warming, changes to local precipitation patterns,local site conditions, and the sensitivity of the individual trees on site.

 

Adaptation Considerations for Forest Management

Management options will need to vary based on the vulnerability of the site to drought . Management options to deal with this additional stress include:

  • Increase diversity. Including a mix of drought-tolerant species and genotypes will help to reduce stand vulnerabilityto drought. When planting sites, managers may consider both species and genetic populations within species to help select appropriate planting stock that will be better adapted to current and future conditions.
  • Manage stand density. Managing tree age, size, and structure within forest stands can improve resistance andresilience to drought. Thinning stands may result in positive near term drought resistance; however, as stands age and grow in size and complexity water demand and drought vulnerability can increase. Uneven-aged management may also reduce stand-wide vulnerability to drought, spreading risk across ages and size classes.
  • Control competition, including invasive species. Management to favor desired species will become important,especially if managing during a drought.
  • Maintain harvest residues. Woody material from harvest can be left on-site to increase moisture availability,resulting in a mulching effect.
  • Consider containerized seedlings. If planting during drought, consider containerized nursing stock which has beenobserved to have increased survival and growth rates compared to bare-root seedlings on dry sites.

 

Conclusions

  • Drought has not been a major disturbance in many regional forests in recent decades, although localized areas havebeen affected.
  • There is increased potential for drought as a result of climate change.
  • Land managers can be aware of the potential for drought and use appropriate management to help alleviate droughtstress.

 

Drought Resources

 

More information

Summary of responding to drought in the Northern Forests 

 

Literature used to create this page

  1. Vose et al, 2016. Drought Impacts on US Forests and Rangelands: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis. 
  2. Handler, S.D., C.W. Swanston, P.R. Butler, L.A. Brandt, M.K. Janowiak, M.D. Powers, and P.D. Shannon, 2014. Climate change vulnerabilities within the forestry sector for the MidwesternUnited States. In: Climate Change in the Midwest: A Synthesis Report for the National Climate Assessment, J.A. Winkler, J.A. Andresen, J.L. Hatfield, D. Bidwell, and D. Brown, eds., Island Press, 114-151, available online:
  3. Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2, available online: