Report: Climate change transforming Rocky Mountain forests

DENVER - Climate change is forever altering forests in the Rocky Mountain region with wildfires, insects and unexplained tree die-off, according to a new report.

Published Wednesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, the report is titled "Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk." It finds that climate changes are driving the "triple assault" that is threatening the landscapes of Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

Temperatures in the region have risen an average of about two degrees Fahrenheit since 1895 and drought has become more widespread. According to report, scientists expect the region to continue getting hotter and drier if climate change continues unchecked.

"While all such projections have inherent uncertainty, they suggest that continued climate change could make the Rocky Mountains less suitable for the conifer species that primarily make up the region’s forests," the report found.

Drought and heat alone harm forests, but are also contributing factors in what the report called a "triple assault" on Rocky Mountain forests: bark beetles, widespread wildfires and the rate of trees dying without any known reason.

  • Bark beetle outbreaks are killing trees at a faster rate than seen in over 100 years of records.
  • Between 1984 and 2011, the number of annual wildfires larger than 1,000 acres increased 73 percent.
  • "The rate at which western trees have died from no obvious cause—such as insect infestations or wildfire—has doubled in recent decades, with a sharp increase in recent years."

The report uses Whitebark pines, Aspens and Pinon pines as key examples, finding:

  • Whitebark pines are in a catastrophic decline and qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Pinon pines have already suffered a mass die-off due to drought and heat during 2002-2003.
  • If changes continue, the amount of land suitable for Aspens could decline by about 61 percent.

Additionally, the report states that if the emissions of greenhouse gases continue the region could lose 90 percent of the land suitable for lodgepole pine, 80 percent of the land for ponderosa pine, 66 percent of the land for Englemann spruce and 66 percent of the land for Douglas fir.

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