Climatic Change

, Volume 102, Issue 1, pp 129-158

First online:

Forest ecosystems, disturbance, and climatic change in Washington State, USA

  • Jeremy S. LittellAffiliated withJISAO/CSES Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington Email author 
  • , Elaine E. OneilAffiliated withRural Technology Initiative, School of Forest Resources, University of Washington
  • , Donald McKenzieAffiliated withPacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab, US Forest Service
  • , Jeffrey A. HickeAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, University of Idaho
  • , James A. LutzAffiliated withSchool of Forest Resources, University of Washington
  • , Robert A. NorheimAffiliated withJISAO/CSES Climate Impacts Group, University of WashingtonSchool of Forest Resources, University of Washington
  • , Marketa M. ElsnerAffiliated withJISAO/CSES Climate Impacts Group, University of WashingtonUniversity of WA

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Climatic change is likely to affect Pacific Northwest (PNW) forests in several important ways. In this paper, we address the role of climate in four forest ecosystem processes and project the effects of future climatic change on these processes across Washington State. First, we relate Douglas-fir growth to climatic limitation and suggest that where Douglas-fir is currently water-limited, growth is likely to decline due to increased summer water deficit. Second, we use existing analyses of climatic controls on tree species biogeography to demonstrate that by the mid twenty-first century, climate will be less suitable for key species in some areas of Washington. Third, we examine the relationships between climate and the area burned by fire and project climatically driven regional and sub-regional increases in area burned. Fourth, we suggest that climatic change influences mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreaks by increasing host-tree vulnerability and by shifting the region of climate suitability upward in elevation. The increased rates of disturbance by fire and mountain pine beetle are likely to be more significant agents of changes in forests in the twenty-first century than species turnover or declines in productivity, suggesting that understanding future disturbance regimes is critical for successful adaptation to climate change.