Nature and Biodiversity

Climate change: How wildfires are causing tree species to relocate

A wildfire burning in a forest.

Some wildfires are encouraging tree species to shift their range. Image: UNSPLASH/Joanne Francis

Rob Jordan
Writer, Stanford University
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Nature and Biodiversity?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Climate Indicators is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Climate Indicators

  • Previous research suggests that animal, plant and tree species are moving to conditions more suitable for their growth and reproduction as the climate changes.
  • For plants, these new locations tend to be higher, cooler elevations.
  • A new analysis shows that wildfires accelerate this shift in range for tree species.
  • This is a natural method of keeping forests remain healthy.
  • Low intensity and prescribed fires could help steer trees to a better location, before climate change leaves them stranded.

A new analysis provides some of the first empirical evidence that wildfire is accelerating the process of tree species shifting their ranges, likely by reducing competition from established species.

Refugee trees are on the move in forests across the western US. As climate conditions change, the ranges of tree species are shifting, especially toward cooler or wetter sites.

The new study in Nature Communications raises questions about how to manage land in an era of shifting ecosystems—a key issue in relation to the newly-signed infrastructure bill that allocates more than $5 billion for forest restoration and wildfire risk reduction.

“Complex, interdependent forces are shaping the future of our forests,” says lead author Avery Hill, a graduate student in biology at Stanford University. “We leveraged an immense amount of ecological data in the hopes of contributing to a growing body of work aimed at managing these ecosystem transitions.”

a chart showing the increase of wildfires in the us
Wildfires are accelerating the process of tree species shifting their ranges. Image: Statista

As the climate changes, animal and plant species are shifting their ranges toward conditions suitable for their growth and reproduction. Past research has shown that plant ranges are shifting to higher, cooler elevations at an average rate of almost five feet per year.

In many studies, these range shifts lag behind the rate of climate change, suggesting that some species may become stranded in unsuitable habitats. The factors that affect plant species’ ability to keep up with climate change are key to maintaining healthy populations of the dominant trees in western forests, yet have remained largely mysterious.

To better understand the distance, direction, and rate at which tree ranges are shifting, Hill and coauthor Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, looked at how wildfire, a potent and widespread driver of ecosystem structure and composition in the western US, affects the phenomenon.

Have you read?

Using US Forest Service data collected from over 74,000 plots across nine Western states, the researchers identified tree species that are shifting their ranges toward cooler, wetter sites—an expected response to the recent warming and drying. Then, they compared the rate of these range shifts between places that were burned by wildfire and places that were not.

Of eight species that had seedlings growing in climates significantly different from mature trees of the same species, Hill and Field found strong evidence that two—Douglas fir and canyon live oak—had larger range shifts in areas that burned than in areas that did not.

Although the analysis did not reveal the mechanism for how wildfire accelerates range shifts for certain trees, the researchers hypothesize that burned areas with their open canopies and scorched understory present less competition from other plant species.

The findings demonstrate not only that fire can accelerate tree migration, but that some species may be slowing the range shifts of others through competition. This, in turn, raises questions about the impact of fire management on trees’ ability to keep up with climate change, and points to the importance of low-intensity prescribed and natural fires.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

“This study highlights a natural mechanism that can help forests remain healthy, even in the face of small amounts of climate change,” says Field. “It also illustrates the way that ecosystem processes often have several layers of controls, a feature that emphasizes the value of detailed understanding for effective management.”

Field is also professor for interdisciplinary environmental studies, a professor of earth system science and biology, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.


The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funded the work.

Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityClimate Action
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

4 steps to jumpstart your mangrove investment journey

Whitney Johnston and Estelle Winkleman

June 20, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum