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Climate change: boon to western trees?

Climate change: Boon to western trees?

Cold, dry forests in the mountainous West would probably weather significant climate warming far better than nearby trout streams and irrigated crops, suggests Steven W. Running of the University of Montana in Missoula. Scientists expect such warming to occur if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are allowed to double during the next century (SN: 4/8/89, p. 216).

Running and his colleagues have developed, and are now refining, a regional-scale ecosystem model to compute daily changes in the water and carbon dynamics of an actual forest. "We're basically simulating a static snapshot of what we imagine the Montana forest landscape might be a century from now," he says. They predicate their latest snapshots of the 1,200-square-kilometer study site on several basic predictions from large-scale climate models: that with a global doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, air in this region will warm by 4[deg.]C and precipitation increase by 10 percent. The researchers also factored in important accommodations plants would make--an increase in photosynthesis and a reduced flow of gases through pores on leaves -- which together should improve their water-use efficiency. But what really makes the model innovative, Running says, is its accounting for how such changes might alter a forest's leaf cover -- where evapotranspiration (water loss) and photosynthesis occur.

Running's model indicates tht if carbon dioxide doubles over the next century, western mountain snowpacks -- which water lower-elevation areas as they melt -- will most likely thaw 60 to 80 days earlier in the spring than they do now. "We're talking about cutting in half the period of snowpack," Running says. Early-thawing snowpacks will not only melt sooner but also parcel out less water. A longer, warmer growing season and improved water-use efficiency should spur tree growth 20 to 30 percent, he found. But warmer temperatures will also boost evaporation throughout the ecosystem, more than offsetting the precipitation increase. With less water and bigger trees to consume what there is, lower-elevation users of mountain runoff may go thirsty, Running says.
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 19, 1989
Previous Article:Plants: definitely for the better.
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