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How fast and far might tree species migrate in the eastern United States due to climate change?


*Correspondence: Louis R. Iverson, USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station, Delaware, OH 43015, USA.


Aim  We describe and use a model, SHIFT, to estimate potential migration due to climate change over the next 100 years.

Location  Eastern United States.

Methods  Five species, currently confined to the eastern half of the United States and not extending into Canada, were used to assess migration potential: Diospyros virginiana (persimmon), Liquidambar styraciflua (sweetgum), Oxydendrum arboreum (sourwood), Pinus taeda (loblolly pine), and Quercus falcata var. falcata (southern red oak). SHIFT is a matrix simulation model using simple inverse power functions to provide a distance decay of seed dispersal and is driven primarily by the abundance of the species near the boundary, the forest density within and beyond the boundary, and the distance between cells. For each cell outside the current boundary, the model creates an estimate of the probability that each unoccupied cell will become colonized over a period of 100 years. SHIFT is a ‘fat-tailed’ migration model that allows rare very long distance dispersal events and colonization could occur up to 500 km beyond the current distribution boundary. Model outputs were analysed using transects through sections showing relatively low and high colonization probabilities as a result of low and high densities of target trees (high source strength) as well as high densities of forest (high sink strength). We also assess migration potential for species by concentric rings around the current boundary.

Results  Model outputs show the generally limited nature of migration for all five species over 100 years. There is a relatively high probability of colonization within a zone of 10–20 km (depending on habitat quality and species abundance) from the current boundary, but a small probability of colonization where the distance from the current boundary exceeds about 20 km. Whether biologically plausible or not, rare very long distance migration events are not sufficient to rescue migration. Species abundance (the source strength of migration) near the range boundary carried relatively more influence than percentage forest cover (sink strength) in determining migration rates.

Main conclusion  The transect evaluation revealed the importance of abundance of the species near the boundary, indicating that rare species may have much more difficulty in unassisted northward migration due to climate change. The concentric rings analysis of the model outputs showed that only the first 10–20 km of area would have a reasonably high probability of colonization. Rare, long-distance events permit colonization of remote outliers, but much more needs to be understood about the likelihood of these rare events to predict the frequency of outlier establishment.

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