How Our Cities’ Green Tree Canopies are Shifting


As global warming drives up temperatures, the US Forest Service predicts that tree growth areas will shift north. By the end of the century, Alabama cherry trees could be replaced by the blue jacarandas of Latin America, while Washington, DC’s Fraser firs could die out and give way to cabbage palms from Florida and South Carolina.

Plant hardiness zones represent the 30-year average of the coldest temperature at any location across the country. These zones help determine which trees can grow in specific areas, taking into account elements such as soil, precipitation, and moisture. As Arbor Day Foundation CEO Dan Lambe explains, these zones serve as a useful tool for understanding where and why certain trees are being planted.

However, modern climate change is fast. The earth has warmed about ten times faster in the past century than during historical ice ages. While humans may be adapting to global warming, trees and ecosystems that depend on them face even greater challenges.

Trees can live indefinitely, some are still standing today, predating the arrival of European settlers. While time alone won’t kill a tree, climate change might. Hardiness zones are slowly but inexorably migrating north, affecting the range of trees available for planting.

As temperatures rise, hardiness zones may shift even further north than current projections suggest. Although some areas may not see changes in their zones, they may still experience subtle shifts in vegetation. Trees “migrate” one generation at a time, with the seeds being spread via river currents, wind, birds and rodents. However, humans are increasingly controlling tree migration patterns and experimenting with new species as the climate warms.

While introducing new tree species can sometimes be successful, there are risks involved. Some introduced species can become invasive and cause ecological disruption. University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy emphasizes the importance of considering more than just a tree’s ability to survive in a new area; It is also important to study its ecological functions and potential impacts on local ecosystems.

Given the reality of climate change and tree species migration, it’s important to consult with licensed arborists or state forest services before experimenting with new trees. Planting trees can be a powerful and tangible way to make a positive impact on the planet. As Pete Smith, manager of the urban forestry program at the Arbor Day Foundation, notes, planting a tree is “a really tangible thing that we know can outlive us with a little care and protection.”

So let’s rise to the challenge and plant more trees suited to our changing climate. In this way we can contribute to a greener, more sustainable future for generations to come.

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