, Volume 15, Issue 1-2, pp 75-82

Lags in vegetation response to greenhouse warming

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Abstract

Fossil pollen in sediments documents vegetation responses to climatic changes in the past. Beech (Fagus grandifolia), with animal-dispersed seeds, moved across Lake Michigan or around its southern margin, becoming established in Wisconsin about 1000 years after populations were established in Michigan. Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), with wind-dispersed seeds, colonized a 50,000 km2 area in northern Michigan between 6000 and 5000 years ago. These tree species extended ranges northward at average rates of 20–25 km per century. To track climatic changes in the future, caused by the greenhouse effect, however, their range limit would need to move northward 100 km per °C warming, or about 300 km per century, an order of magnitude faster than range extension in the past. Yet range extension in the future would be less efficient than in the past, because advance disjunct colonies have been extirpated by human disturbance, and because the seed source is reduced due to reductions in tree populations following logging. Many species of trees may not be able to disperse rapidly enough to track climate, and woodland herbs, which have less efficient seed dispersal mechanisms, may be in danger of extinction.