Things are changing.

There is little doubt that our woodlands provide a multitude of public benefits like clean water and air, wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, forest products, recreational opportunities, and more.

So it should be of little surprise that healthy thriving woodlands are one of our best tools to buffer us against the deleterious impacts of climate change. Our forests have always endured natural stresses and disturbances like fires, storms, drought, insects and pathogens and human caused disturbances like deforestation, fragmentation, and invasive species introductions. The impacts of climate change in our region will certainly exacerbate these stresses and alter the composition of our forests in various ways. The US Forest Service’s Mid-Atlantic forest ecosystem vulnerability assessment and synthesis is a comprehensive resource that elucidates the various changes we are likely to see in our forests from the impacts of a changing climate.

Unlike the western United States where drought is predicted to worsen, the east will likely see an increase in overall annual rainfall due to climate change. The pattern of this precipitation, however, is predicted to change too. Our region will likely see an increase in precipitation in the winter and spring and potential longer periods of drought in the summer and fall. We will also see more frequent and intense storms. Climate change is already lengthening our growing season while shortening the periods of cold winter temperatures. Although several of our forest trees will respond positively to a longer growing season and the increase in CO2, these conditions are also quite advantageous for the proliferation of noxious plants and insects. Many invasive plants establish successfully because they already break bud earlier and go dormant later than our native deciduous vegetation, which aids them in their production and storage of food reserves. Many forest insect pest populations will expand as they are no longer subjugated to the natural control provided by long periods of below-freezing temperatures.

The species composition of our forests has consistently changed over the millennium and will likely continue under the stresses of new climatic conditions. According to the assessment, species that can tolerate warmer and periodic drier summers and fall like black oak, northern red oak, pignut hickory, sweetgum, and white oak and yellow pines will succeed while species that favor moist (mesic) soil conditions like white pine, sugar maple, American beech, eastern hemlock and red spruce will likely be diminished in our region (see the assessment for a comprehensive list of species). Our forest types that have been shaped by disturbance regimes over the millennia like oak/hickory and oak/pine will likely not change dramatically. However, the unique forests of our region like montane spruce-fir in the high elevations of the Appalachians and lowland conifer forest communities are determined to be the most vulnerable ecosystems due to higher temperatures and varying soil moisture regimes in the summer and fall. Maritime and tidal swamp forest communities are also determined to be vulnerable ecosystems in the coastal plain region due to climate change’s impacts on sea level rise, storm surges and saltwater intrusion.

Managing the health and vitality of your woodland is necessary to help it adapt to and temper a fastly changing climate. Management actions can be implemented on your property through the guidance of a forest management plan developed by a professional forester. Controlling invasive plants is a management action that helps existing trees grow and sequester carbon while also allowing for new trees to regenerate. Thinning a crowded stand of trees in your forest reduces the stress of competition and allows the remaining trees to vigorously grow in response to the additional light and better defend against the threats of insects and pathogens. Promoting a diversity of species within your woods helps to buffer it from a variable climate and soil moisture regimes mentioned earlier. Periodic harvests can also generate renewable forest products that can lock carbon up for decades while regenerating new growth in the forest. Ensuring that your forester and loggers are implementing the best forestry practices to limit soil disturbance and protect residual trees after the harvest allows for a continuation of carbon storage and sequestration while the new forest emerges. The American Forest Foundation and Nature Conservancy have developed their Family Forest Carbon Program to help private woodland owners convert their management actions that enhance carbon sequestration into income through voluntary carbon markets.

Reforesting open land on your property is a key strategy to sequester carbon both in the tree tissue and the soil while also helping landowners attain other management goals. Both Maryland and Pennsylvania have set reforestation goals in their respective 5 Million Tree Initiative and the Keystone 10 million Trees Partnership. Successful reforestation requires planting the most suitable tree species for the specific site conditions of the parcel and providing maintenance care for the new forest until it is established. There are several public and NGO conservation programs available to support reforestation endeavors including several with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Forests provide us all with essential and enduring benefits. We just need to help them help us.