The pine beetle damage of the past few years has underscored how vulnerable Colorado’s forests are to climate change (scientists say that the pine beetle’s spread was hastened by warmer winters).
But ponderosa pine and the Colorado blue spruce (beset by another pest, the spruce beetle) aren’t the only tree species at risk. A new interactive tool from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies underscores just how much Colorado’s forest landscape could change in the next 90 years depending on how effectively humans rein in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
ForestForecasts.org is as stunning a tool as it is sobering. Users can select one of 100 different tree species common to the American West, input a range of climate scenarios and get a dynamic, high-resolution animated portrayal of what forests might look like from now until 2080. Users can zoom in close enough in any state in the Western U.S. to see individual mountainsides, and a 3D view lets you watch tree species creep to higher or lower elevations over time.
ACES worked with the U.S. Forest Service to establish the baseline forest data for today using millions of on-ground observations. Then, scientists at the University of Arizona helped create the prediction models using 19 bioclimatic variables like average annual temperature, rainfall, warmest month, and others. The impetus isn’t only research, but education.
“We wanted a tool for the public to use to see the impact of climate change on their backyard,” says Jamie Werner, ACES forest program director. The model doesn’t take into account the effect of wildfires or pests like the beetles, but it does provide broad looks at habitat suitability.
“What surprised me most that I pictured lots of tree species migrating north, but instead we see a constricting of range toward higher elevations,” says Werner. “Under a worst-case scenario, which unfortunately is the path we’re on now, we could see 90 percent reduction in certain subalpine forest types.”
That’s not only an aesthetic or economic concern—who knows if, say, skiers will want to slide around resorts peppered with leafless aspen and Gambel oak trees instead of thick, furry evergreens. “High-elevation conifers are a kind of water reservoir for the west,” explains Werner. “The water supply systems for Colorado and western states rely on a nice, steady-pace spring runoffs, and those shady high-elevation conifer forests protect snowpack from the sun. If we see more aspens, and we get faster runoff, then you’re impacting the water supply for up to 40 million people.”
ACES hopes that the tool will inspire people to get involved in advocating climate-friendly policies at a local level. Werner points out that the connection is, for Coloradans, literally right in our backyard. “Our forests will change in our lifetime,” she says. “They already are; we’re not talking about 200 years down the road. Even under the best-case scenario we’ll see some change, but how much is up to us.”