From: Frank Carini, ecoRI News staff
Published April 17, 2014 09:47 AM

Climate Change Reshaping Urban Tree Populations

Despite protecting us from the impacts of a changing climate, our region's trees are also threatened by wetter and warmer weather. The urban forests of today will look much different by the end of the century.

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By the end of this century, scientists predict southern New England's seas will rise some 3 feet, and without major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they say summers here will soon resemble Georgia's dog days.

Like the rest of the planet, southern New England's climate is changing, and not all of the changes are as noticeable as, say, three straight days of rain that dump a foot or so of water (2010), an October snowstorm (2011), or a superstorm that hangs around for a few days (Sandy, 2012).

Some changes are less obvious, such as the 10-inch rise in sea level that has taken place along the Newport shoreline since 1931, or the greater frequency of 2-inch rainfalls since the 1950s. There's also the often-unseen toll the changing climate is having and will have on infrastructure and buildings.

In October 2013, Boston officials released a report entitled "Climate Ready Boston," which listed things the city should be doing to adapt to climate change, such planting more trees to lessen the heat-island effect and help cool a warming city.

But what kind of trees should we be planting? It's not our father's southern New England anymore. In the past decade, the region has witnessed an increase in extreme rain and snowfall events. Southern New England is becoming wetter and warmer, which means trees that once thrived for centuries may not stand up to climate change.

Climate scientists have told Chicago officials that their city will feel more like New Orleans by 2050. To prepare, the city has started planting sweet gums, swamp oaks and other heat-tolerant trees instead of white oak, the state tree of Illinois.

For trees to reach their expected lifespan — 90 years or so — they must be able to endure changing conditions. A changing climate also means trees must deal with stressors such as insects and disease, according to Doug Still, Providence's city forester.

To deal with climate change and the additional problems it creates, Providence's tree-planting efforts are centered around diversity. "We haven't changed our plans too much to accommodate climate change specifically," said Still, the city forester since 2005. "It's about planting a diverse mix to create an urban forest that is resilient."

Read more at ecoRI News.

Urban sidewalk image via Shutterstock.

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