New tools will help us see forest changes 60 years into warmer globe
ASPEN, Colo. – Current average mean temperature in Aspen during summer is just shy of 79 degrees. And if civilization continues to spew greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere at the current rates? It’ll hit nearly 90 degrees by late this century, according to computer models.
But what exactly does that mean? Dr. Brian Enquist, an expert in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, has been working on new techniques that can help the layperson get visual images of what the warming environment will mean for forests in the West.
Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival recently, he said much of our paralysis in the face of mounting evidence about greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to the inability of people to imagine how the changing climate will impact them personally.
“The thought is that global climate change is global—and it will happen someplace else, maybe rising sea levels and increased hurricanes.”
To watch hour-long video, go to Aspen Ideas Festival website.
With that in mind, several organizations have set out to make the face of climate change more personal and local. The team, including the University of Arizona Science iPlant Collaborative, tapped the burgeoning database about species and habitat. They then are creating tools to stimulate the changes.
One application has to do with how forests in the West will change. In this, his team worked with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Set at 8,000 feet in elevation, Aspen is surrounded by forests of subalpine fir and, at higher elevations, Engelmann spruce and blue spruce.
As temperatures rise, that forest of subalpine fir will gradually be replaced. By 2081, assuming that global civilization does not curb its emissions of greenhouse gases, the existing tree species will nearly all be replaced with piñyon and ponderosa pine and other species now found at lower elevations.
“Subalpine species could decrease up to 95 percent under the worst-case scenario,” Enquist said.
“We now have the ability to start to visualize what climate change means for our forests, our landscapes, my backyard and my property,” he said while showing a computer simulation that uses Google Earth with its ability to zoom in on a landscape.
Worst-case warming will reduce biomass in Western forests by up to 40 percent. If civilization curbs emissions? There will be warming, but less of it.
The team is currently developing an app that will allow somebody to use a smartphone to access images of that precise landscape.
This story originally appeared in the July 9, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News, an e-zine distributed to paid subscribers.