A changing climate has the potential to challenge the ability of forests to continue to provide value to landowners and citizens, said Stephen Handler, a Forest Service employee with the Northern Research Station who is also affiliated with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science.
“Forests and our ecosystems across the Midwest, they provide essential values for us,” Handler said recently in a Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association webinar.
Among the values of forests Handler listed are legacy, wildlife habitat, ecosystem services and economic benefits.
But climate change could have serious consequences for the state of woodlands in Wisconsin, Handler said.
Preliminary data from a survey completed by a University of Michigan researcher show that the more than 1,200 surveyed Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota forest landowners who owned at least 10 acres “overwhelmingly” agreed that the climate is changing, human activities are a contributing factor and forestry also has a role, Handler said.
Handler reported that the average temperature trend for Wisconsin in February has increased 0.5°F each decade since 1895. Winter tends to be warming faster than other seasons as well, he added.
Winters have also tended to be wetter, Handler said, and the state shows a drier-than-normal/wetter-than-normal split between northern and southern Wisconsin during summer.
While the difference between weather and climate — in a basic definition, weather plus time equals climate — means that not every season is going to follow the trends, Handler said, a cumulative effect will still occur in the long run.
“That’s not a huge number, 0.5 Fahrenheit per decade,” Handler said, “but the idea is once you start stacking together decade after decade after decade after decade, now we’re talking over a hundred years, we’ve got over 5 degrees Fahrenheit warming over this period of time. And that is an astonishing rate of change. It’s very fast.”
Still, climate change isn’t going to all of a sudden be a “sweeping devastation across the landscape,” Handler said.
Instead, it can act as a threat multiplier, he said, creating new and potentially damaging interactions in the ecosystem.
Adaptation, which Handler defined as taking action to prepare for climate change and still meeting your goals, is a way for land managers to cope with future changes.
Those changes may include a longer growing season, shifting hardiness zones, carbon dioxide fertilization, increased drought risk, extreme weather events, less frozen ground, increased fire risk, species range shifts and increased stressors, Handler said.
There’s a strong chance that landowners are ahead of the curve and are aware of the potential effects of climate change, Handler said. And they’re looking for information.
Combining assessment and research with local conditions and management and identifying your priorities for the woods are some tools available for addressing climate change, Handler said.
There is more than one way to go about adaptation, Handler said, categorizing options as resistance (efforts undertaken to maintain the status quo); resilience (efforts that provide flexibility and elasticity); and transition (efforts done to reduce long-term risks and plant for the future).
The Natural Resources Conservation Service has programs available to help adapt land managers’ woods to climate change, said Andy Hart, NRCS Wisconsin state forester.
Those include Forest Stand Improvement and Tree and Shrub Planting through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. They also include EQIP practice standards such as woody residue treatments, windbreaks, and riparian forest buffers among others.
Additional enhancements through the Conservation Stewardship Program, a five-year program, include planting for carbon sequestration, carbon storage, improved field borders, conversion of cropland on slopes and marginal cropland, sugarbush management, oak regeneration facilitation and all forestry practices found in EQIP.
NRCS also encourages increasing species diversity.
Increasing species diversity can help in instances, such as the spread of the emerald ash borer, where something attacks a particularly species, Hart said. Increased diversity can help prevent an occurrence like that from devastating the forest.