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Natural climate variability as a context for understanding anthropogenic climatic disruption

New information from climate sciences and paleoecology increasingly challenges our ability to grasp dynamic nature. Key concepts for restoration include natural (without human influence) climate oscillates regularly, at multiple and nested temporal scales, including interannual, decadal, century, millennial, and multimillennial. In addition, transitions between climate phases often occur abruptly, and vegetation responds to climate change. Repetitive climate changes at each scale exert significant recurring evolutionary and ecological force on vegetation, and species have evolved mechanisms to adapt despite ongoing environmental change. These include changes in population size, abundance, and productivity, population migration, colonization, and extirpation. Plant communities exist as transient assemblages as species move individually through time and space following favorable climates and environments.

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Current and future climates; Global, North America, western NA scales

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Climate interactions with other stressors (natural/anthropogenic).

A warmer climate in western North America will affect forests directly through soil moisture stress and indirectly through increased extent and severity of disturbances. Following a pathological model for individual trees, we propose the idea of stress complexes in forests, combinations of biotic and abiotic stresses that compromise the vigor and ultimate sustainability of forest ecosystems. Across western North America, increased water deficit will accelerate the normal stress complex experienced in forests, which typically involves some combination of multi-year drought, insects, and fire. We present examples that illustrate how stress complexes are region-specific and are magnified under a warming climate. Symptoms of prolonged drought and insects are currently manifested in extensive dieback of pine species in the pinyon-juniper forest of the American Southwest, an area where only a few tree species can survive. Air pollution and high stand densities from fire exclusion have compromised mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada. Bark beetles are proliferating and killing millions of hectares of dry forest, especially lodgepole pine, in the northern interior of western North America, setting up the prospect of large and intense fires. Fire and insect mortality have also reached unprecedented levels in both interior and southern Alaska, possibly precipitating extensive ecosystem changes. Increases in fire disturbance superimposed on forests with increased stress from drought and insects may have significant effects on growth, regeneration, long-term distribution and abundance of forest species, and short- and long-term carbon sequestration.

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Downscaled models: Climate and climate impacts in western region.

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Physical and ecological implications of climate change to Pacific Islands ecosystems.

Tropical forests are critical ecosystems affecting the earth’s climate, hydrological cycles and human cultures. While they only cover about 10% of the earth’s land surface they store about 40% of the C residing in terrestrial vegetation. They are incredibly important habitats for plants and animals harboring between one-half to two-thirds of the world’s species. Not only are they large sinks of terrestrial carbon but they are significant sources of carbon emissions to the atmosphere as a result of high rates deforestation, fires, and land conversion.

The tropical forests of Hawaii and other islands of the Pacific are global treasures of biological diversity. They posses a higher proportion of endemic plants and animals than anywhere on earth. However, the combined effects of land use land cover change, invasive species and global climate change present unprecedented threats to the future existence of the species, ecosystems and cultures that have thrived there for millennia.

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Carbon, carbon cycle, and western ecosystems.

Forests matter in the global and US carbon cycle because they store much carbon in their wood, dead wood and soil and because this storage can be easily changed. Currently, forests and long-lived wood products annually store 313 million metric tons of carbon per year (one million metric tons = 1012), which offsets about 20% of US fossil fuel output of 1580 million metric tons of carbon per year. Woodland expansion onto grasslands offsets another 120 million metric tons of carbon per year. The large US carbon sink is likely the result of recovery from past heavy wood use and logging, but increasing CO2 and nitrogen deposition may also be increasing productivity. Forest carbon goes through a predictable cycle after a disturbance, with losses either during or after the disturbance and recovery with re-growth. As long as forests replace themselves and the frequency of disturbance does not increase dramatically, forested landscapes are very resistant to changes in carbon over the long term. However, if tree regeneration is unsuccessful after disturbances such as fire, insects, or storms and the forest changes to meadow or shrubland, then the carbon stored in the former forest is lost to the atmosphere.

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Ecological responses to 20th-21st century change, western North America.

Climate, the long-term description of weather, is the variation of temperature, wind, cloudiness, precipitation, and humidity. Plants and animals are adapted to local climates and drivers of ecosystem change such as fire and insect outbreaks. Ecological changes in the dynamics of plants, animals, and ecosystems associated with a change in climate have been observed: advance of spring events such as hibernation, green-up of vegetation, migration, and breeding, species distribution changes across their historical ranges, and community composition changes. Determining if climate is the causal factor in any change in plant, animal or ecosystem dynamics requires careful study.

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Managing for climate and climate impacts; Introduction.

Rather than treating climate change as one of many management challenges, it is essential to consider the effects of climate change in all plans and activities. Successful adaptation of natural resources to climate change begins by identifying resources and processes at risk from climate change, defining thresholds and reference conditions, establishing monitoring and assessment programs, and engaging in management actions that increase the adaptive capacity and ecological resilience of these resources. As climate change continues, thresholds of resilience will be passed, increasing the importance of addressing uncertainty in planning and management. Adaptation strategies include scenario planning; adaptive management, including an increased capacity to learn rapidly from management successes and failures; and examining and responding to the multiple scales at which species and processes function. The latter most certainly will require regional partnerships and a shared vision among multiple organizations. Science-based management principles will become more critical because past experience may not serve as a guide for novel future conditions. Preparing for and adapting to climate change is as much a cultural and intellectual challenge as an ecological challenge.

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National Forest planning and climate; A decision-maker’s perspective.

The issue of climate change in managing National Forest System lands has roared into the already cluttered schedules of today’s line officers. Concepts, theories and elaborate climate models have further confused natural resource planning at the field level. In the course of the average Forest Service line officer’s career, the requirements to plan projects and analyze information has gone from the individual unit scale to a global scale where we are being asked to consider global climatic changes that may affect a landscapes sustainability and resiliency. 

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Alder Springs biomass project; A case study in mitigation.

It is intuitively obvious to many that wildfires produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs). But as climate change mitigation strategies, including legislation and policy, focus on ways to reduce and sequester GHGs where possible, many are beginning to investigate whether forest management has a measurable effect on GHGs. More importantly, do we know enough to create accounting rules that might give credit to particular landowners or discrete projects for reducing GHGs or sequestering carbon through forest management?

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National Forest planning and climate; A decision-maker’s perspective.

We established science-management partnerships on the Olympic National Forest (Washington) and Tahoe National Forest (California) in the first effort to develop adaptation options for specific national forests. We employed a focus group process in order to establish the scientific context necessary for understanding climate change and its anticipated effects, and to develop specific options for adapting to a warmer climate. Climate change scientists provided the scientific knowledge base on which adaptations could be based, and resource managers developed adaptation options based on their understanding of ecosystem structure, function, and management.

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Assessment and adaptation; RPA, LMP to Project scales.

The Forest Service Renewable Resource Assessment is legally mandated to analyze the impacts of climate change on forest and rangelands and to identify urban and rural forestry opportunities for mitigation. In 1974, the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) directed the Secretary of Agriculture to prepare national assessments that analyze the demand for and supply of renewable resources from all forests and rangelands in the US. This information would provide reliable information for resource management planning at national and regional scales. Since 1974, these national renewable resource assessments have focused on timber, wildlife and fish, range, water, recreation, wilderness, and special topics such as biodiversity, species endangerment patterns, and land use. In 1990, this Act was amended to add the analysis of climate change impacts and forestry opportunities for mitigation. Since 1990, there have been three climate change assessments as part of the RPA process. The addition of climate change into the RPA process facilitated opportunities to identify new research that built on existing agency policy, for example, analyses conducted by RPA identified research areas for the new FS Global Change Research Program. The first analysis of the impacts of climate change on a nation’s forest sector and carbon budget was conducted as part of the 1993 Interim Assessment. This modeling framework and results demonstrated the importance of linking ecological impacts analysis to the economic analysis...

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Managing for climate and climate impacts; Conceptual framework.

We offer a conceptual framework for managing forested ecosystems under an assumption that future environments will be different from present but that we cannot be certain about the specifics of change. We encourage flexible approaches that promote reversible and incremental steps, and that favor ongoing learning and capacity to modify direction as situations change. We suggest that no single solution fits all future challenges, especially in the context of changing climates, and that the best strategy is to mix different approaches for different situations. Resources managers will be challenged to integrate adaptation strategies (actions that help ecosystems accommodate changes adaptively) and mitigation strategies (actions that enable ecosystems to reduce anthropogenic influences on global climate) into overall plans. Adaptive strategies include resistance options (forestall impacts and protect highly valued resources), resilience options (improve the capacity of ecosystems to return to desired conditions after disturbance), and response options (facilitate transition of ecosystems from current to new conditions). Mitigation strategies include options to sequester carbon and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. Priority-setting approaches (e.g., triage), appropriate for rapidly changing conditions and for situations where needs are greater than available capacity to respond, will become increasingly important in the future.

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