Space & Innovation

How Trees Try to Cope With Climate Change

Warming temperatures and drought are making it tougher to survive.

Imagine that you're lost in a desert, or some other inhospitable environment. You've got two choices. One is to stay in place and conserve supplies and water, in order to make them last. The other is to push on tenaciously and hope that you find a way out of your predicament.

As it turns out, trees are like that too, when it comes to coping with the hotter, drier environment created by climate change. In a new article in the journal Global Change Biology, University of Washington researchers studied two common tree species in southwestern Colorado, and found that each had developed a different survival strategy.

CO2 Isn't Spurring Plant Growth, as Expected

"We really wanted to identify the entire suite of strategies that a plant can use to grow in drier environments, as well as which of these strategies each tree would employ," UW biology professor Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, who co-authored the article with graduate student Leander Anderegg, said in a press release.

In the summer of 2014, the two researchers studied the slopes of the La Plata Mountains in Colorado's San Juan National Forest, where a drought-ravaged ecosystem that's become 1 degree Fahrenheit hotter over the past 30 years is putting stress on trees.

One of the species under pressure is the ponderosa pine, whose habitat at the lower levels overlaps with that of the trembling aspens, a tree that predominates further up the mountainside.

10 Nasty Surprises from Climate Change

Anderegg and Hille Ris Lambers led a team of undergraduates who collected leaf, branch and tree ring samples of both trees. They studied that material to figure out how the trees adapted to drought conditions, and measured qualities such as the trees' growth rate and the water tension inside their woody tissue.

The researchers found that the ponderosa pine used a strategy of "drought avoidance" by conserving water, especially by shutting the tiny openings on its leaves to prevent water loss and slowing growth.

The trembling aspen, in contrast, simply tried to keep growing - at least for a while - during drought, with no change to water conservation strategies. "On the dry end of their range, the trembling aspens are relatively short with these really fat leaves," Anderegg explained. "Internally, they also grow really strong xylem vessels, which move water inside of the tree. As a consequence, they are much denser and they also grow slower."

Video: Why People Still Deny Climate Change

Both of the strategies have downsides. The trembling aspen's push to grow might make it more vulnerable to severe or prolonged drought, especially at its dry lower range. The ponderosa pine's strategy is likely to gradually reduce its range.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, climate change is likely to shift the geographic range of many tree species, with species unable to tolerate heat moving northward or to higher elevations.

A trembling aspen canopy at the study site in the La Plata Mountains.

You've heard a lot about how human-driven climate change will lead to hotter temperatures, cause sea levels to rise and make storms more intense. But it's projected to have plenty of other unpleasant and even disastrous effects as well. Here are 10 of them. Scientists believe that rising temperatures will lead to increased evaporation of the Great Lakes' water, and precipitation won't make up the difference. That means we're likely to see declines in water levels over the next century, and one study predicts they may drop as much as 8 feet.

Earth Shots: Must See Planet Pics (Sept. 21)

Thanks to climate change, jumbo-sized ragweed plants will spew out more pollen for a longer, more miserable allergy season.

Here Are 10 Striking Images Of Future Sea Levels

By altering the wild environment, climate change makes it easier for newly mutated microbes to jump between species, and it's likely that as a result, diseases will emerge and spread across the globe even more rapidly.

A recent Nature article reported that male Australian central bearded dragons have been growing female genitalia because of rising temperatures, a phenomenon that had not previously been observed in that species.

10 Signs Climate Change Is Already Happening

Rising sea levels are wiping out beaches all over the world already. Importing fresh sand and building them up again is only a temporary solution. To make matters worse, there's currently a sand shortage, due to demand from fracking, glass and cement making.

Bark beetles are eating old growth forests, because the winters aren't cold enough to kill them off. So more trees like this American Elm will die.

VIDEO: Global Warming And Climate Change: What's The Diff?

Warmer temperatures mean there will be more water vapor trapped in the atmosphere, leading to more lightning. A University of California-Berkeley study predicts that lightning strikes will increase by about 12 percent for every degree Celsius gained.

Sierra Nevada Snowpack Worst In Five Centuries

Wine grape harvests are being hurt. Regions that have historically supplied the world’s best wine will no longer be hospitable climates to grow wine grapes, according to research by the Environmental Defense Fund and others.

Coffee flavor depends upon really narrow conditions of temperature and moisture, and climate change is going to wreak havoc with that. Worse yet, as coffee growing regions become warmer, pests that couldn't survive in the past will ravage the crops. This is already being seen in Costa Rica, India and Ethiopia, which have experienced sharp declines in crop yields.

California Drought by the Numbers

Scientists say that as ice sheets and glaciers melt, the weight that's removed from the Earth's crust changes the stresses upon volcanoes. That unloading effect can trigger eruptions.

What Warming Means For 4 Of Summer’s Worst Pests