Simulations show decreasing carbon stocks and potential for carbon emissions in Rocky Mountain forests over the next century

Authors

  • Céline Boisvenue,

    1. Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59802 USA
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    •  Present address: Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Laurentian Forestry Centre, 1055 du PEPS, P.O. Box 10380, Stn. Sainte-Foy, Québec QC G1V 4C7 Canada. E-mail: cboisven@NRCan.gc.ca

  • Steven W. Running

    1. Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59802 USA
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  • Corresponding Editor: D. R. Zak.

Abstract

Climate change has altered the environment in which forests grow, and climate change models predict more severe alterations to come. Forests have already responded to these changes, and the future temperature and precipitation scenarios are of foremost concern, especially in the mountainous western United States, where forests occur in the dry environments that interface with grasslands. The objective of this study was to understand the trade-offs between temperature and water controls on these forested sites in the context of available climate projections. Three temperature and precipitation scenarios from IPCC AR4 AOGCMs ranging in precipitation levels were input to the process model Biome-BGC for key forested sites in the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains. Despite the omission of natural and human-caused disturbances in our simulations, our results show consequential effects from these conservative future temperature and precipitation scenarios. According to these projections, if future precipitation and temperatures are similar to or drier than the dry scenario depicted here, high-elevation forests on both the drier and wetter sites, which have in the absence of disturbance accumulated carbon, will reduce their carbon accumulation. Under the marginally drier climate projections, most forests became carbon sources by the end of the simulation horizon (2089). Under all three scenarios, growing season lengthened, the number of days with snow on the ground decreased, peak snow occurred earlier, and water stress increased through the projection horizon (1950–2089) for all sites, which represent the temperature and precipitation spectrum of forests in this region. The quantity, form, and timing of precipitation ultimately drive the carbon accumulation trajectory of forests in this region.

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