Steve Running, Regents Professor of Ecology, is a convening lead author on the forests chapter of the Third National Climate Assessment. The report, released May 6 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is required by Congress as an update on the current status of climate, observed changes and anticipated trends for the future in the United States.
Running and chapter co-lead Linda A. Joyce, a U.S. Forest Service scientist, worked for more than two years prioritizing the biggest impacts to forests from climate change across the U.S. They convened a team of authors from the University of Arizona, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry, Vision Forestry, Ohio State University and the U.S. Forest Service.
The authors identified several key issues in forested lands. The most important impact to forests are accelerated disturbances such as pine beetles and wildfires that could impact timber production, flooding, water budgets, carbon storage and more.
Secondly, U.S. forests currently store about 16 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel burning in the U.S. each year. Climate and changes in forest management will reduce this rate of carbon dioxide uptake.
The third finding addresses the role of bioenergy. Bioenergy could emerge as a new market for wood, but forest owners and managers also must consider the carbon-emission consequences of using wood for bioenergy.
“In Montana we could probably never make bioenergy a carbon neutral solution,” Running said. “The carbon emissions of transporting biomass to market are significant, and harvesting causes forests to become a source of CO2 emissions before the trees grow back enough to become a carbon sink again.”
He said in Montana using materials left over from timber harvest makes the most sense to help bioenergy pencil out as an alternative to fossil fuels. “If we combine bioenergy with issues we have to solve anyway – like fuels thinning in the wildland-urban interface or restoration of beetle-killed forests, then bioenergy might be a winner in Montana,” Running said.
The chapter describes changing forest ownerships as a fourth major impact. This will play a role in how forest managers respond to climate change. For example, more private forests are now owned by investment management organizations that may or may not have active forest management as a primary objective.
The third National Climate Assessment also includes chapters on water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, rural communities and more. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 requires an assessment report at least every four years.
The assessment is the most comprehensive analysis of how climate change affects the U.S. now and could affect it in the future.
The federal government produces these reports through the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a collaboration of 13 federal science agencies. The report is written by 240 authors drawn from academia; local, state and federal government; the private sector; and the nonprofit sector.
The full report is online.