University of Montana reveals forest canopy’s role in climate change mitigation

If you didn’t think plant life was capable of altruism, think again. When temperatures rise, less rain falls. And rainforests respond, protecting young trees from drought and heat by providing shade.

Mature trees protect their offspring to a surprising degree

Adult trees’ deeper roots are better able to cope with heat and drought than young trees, but the computer models we currently use to predict how forests will respond to climate change don’t take the difference between young and mature trees into consideration.

Research by Solomon Dobrowski at the University of Montana reveals how climate change buffering by forest canopies is a vital consideration if we want to accurately predict future rainforest regeneration.

A forest with no young trees is a dying forest

Dobrowski and colleagues examined where juvenile trees are found compared to mature same-species trees and looked at potential changes under the hotter, drier climates we expect the climate of the future climate to deliver.

The team already suspected canopies may protect juvenile trees from some of the limiting factors that kill them, for example high winds. It makes sense. But the team’s projections also suggest young trees fare better under a protective forest canopy, and removing the canopy makes them suffer. The eventual outcome – forests with no juvenile trees surviving – is grim, since a forest without new trees is a dying forest.

Identifying areas where young trees are most likely to thrive

The difference between the condition and health of young and mature trees of the same species are most pronounced when it’s hottest and driest. In particularly dry habitats, juvenile trees grow best in the wettest areas. Shade-tolerant trees and juvenile trees are also happier in cooler settings. It might seem obvious but now it’s proven.

The findings should help scientists and conservationists predict what the future holds for western forests, allowing them to better compare where young and mature trees are happiest via the “unique insights” the research reveals.


Article on behalf of The Rainforest Foundation.

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