Seven ways a warming climate can kill the southern boreal forest

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The southern boreal forests of North America are susceptible to large changes in composition as temperate forests or grasslands may replace them as the climate warms. A number of mechanisms for this have been shown to occur in recent years: (1) Gradual replacement of boreal trees by temperate trees through gap dynamics; (2) Sudden replacement of boreal overstory trees after gradual understory invasion by temperate tree species; (3) Trophic cascades causing delayed invasion by temperate species, followed by moderately sudden change from boreal to temperate forest; (4)Wind and/or hail storms removing large swaths of boreal forest and suddenly releasing temperate understory trees; (4) Compound disturbances: wind and fire combination; (5) Long, warm summers and increased drought stress; (6) Insect infestation due to lack of extreme winter cold; (7) Phenological disturbance, due to early springs, that has the potential to kill enormous swaths of coniferous boreal forest within a few years. Although most models project gradual change from boreal forest to temperate forest or savanna, most of these mechanisms have the capability to transform large swaths (size range tens to millions of square kilometers) of boreal forest to other vegetation types during the 21st century. Therefore, many surprises are likely to occur in the southern boreal forest over the next century, with major impacts on forest productivity, ecosystem services, and wildlife habitat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number560
Issue number5
StatePublished - Apr 29 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments: LEF was supported by a gift from Darby and Geri Nelson. PBR was supported by the US National Science Foundation Biology Integration Institute (NSF-DBI-2021898) program. RAM was supported by Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station project MIN-42-081.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • Climate change
  • Compound disturbance
  • Fire
  • Insect infestation
  • Phenological disturbance
  • Wind


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