The Earth's forests are a crucial resource for absorbing human carbon output and slowing, at least to a degree, the pace of climate change. But climate change also is altering the forests themselves. For one thing, it seems to be making trees in some places grow a lot faster.
In a recently-published article in Nature Communications, researchers from Germany's Technische Universität München report that the two dominant types of trees found in European forests are growing at a startling place compared to those trees' rates back in 1960.
The scientists found that European beech trees - scientific name Fagus sylvatica – are racing through their usual stages of growth at a 70 percent faster rate than they once did, while Norway spruce trees (Picea abies) are maturing 32 percent more rapidly. They believe that the accelerated growth is being caused by rising temperatures and an extended growing season, plus higher levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen - all variables that are related to climate change.
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Faster-growing trees might sound like a good thing, but it may not be. The researchers also note that as today's fast-growing European forest stands, or sections of similar trees, contain about 17 to 20 percent fewer trees than older stands. The faster-growing trees seem to age faster, as well.
Climate change's effect on tree growth has been observed elsewhere, as well. New Scientist reported in 2009 that rising global temperatures were causing a growth spurt among Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) located in mountainous areas of the western United States, which are among the oldest trees on Earth. An analysis of tree rings found that the ancient trees had grown faster in the past 50 years than they had in the previous 3,700.
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A 2008 U.S. government report predicted that climate change's effects on U.S. forests would vary. In the Northeast, higher temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels might cause forests to grow and become more productive in terms of photosynthesis, which would result in them removing more carbon from the atmosphere. But in the West and Southeast, where water is more limited, warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons would have a less positive impact. In addition, some tree species might be unable to survive in the new habitat, unless they're able to shift to higher altitudes.