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Evidence and implications of recent and projected climate change in Alaska’s forest ecosystems

Evidence and implications of recent and projected climate change in Alaska’s forest ecosystems

The structure and function of Alaska's forests have changed significantly in response to a changing climate, including alterations in species composition and climate feedbacks (e.g., carbon, radiation budgets) that have important regional societal consequences and human feedbacks to forest ecosystems. In this paper we present the first comprehensive synthesis of climate-change impacts on all forested ecosystems of Alaska, highlighting changes in the most critical biophysical factors of each region. We developed a conceptual framework describing climate drivers, biophysical factors and types of change to illustrate how the biophysical and social subsystems of Alaskan forests interact and respond directly and indirectly to a changing climate. We then identify the regional and global implications to the climate system and associated socio-economic impacts, as presented in the current literature. Projections of temperature and precipitation suggest wildfire will continue to be the dominant biophysical factor in the Interior-boreal forest, leading to shifts from conifer- to deciduous-dominated forests. Based on existing research, projected increases in temperature in the Southcentral- and Kenai-boreal forests will likely increase the frequency and severity of insect outbreaks and associated wildfires, and increase the probability of establishment by invasive plant species. In the Coastal-temperate forest region snow and ice is regarded as the dominant biophysical factor. With continued warming, hydrologic changes related to more rapidly melting glaciers and rising elevation of the winter snowline will alter discharge in many rivers, which will have important consequences for terrestrial and marine ecosystem productivity. These climate-related changes will affect plant species distribution and wildlife habitat, which have regional societal consequences, and trace-gas emissions and radiation budgets, which are globally important. Our conceptual framework facilitates assessment of current and future consequences of a changing climate, emphasizes regional differences in biophysical factors, and points to linkages that may exist but that currently lack supporting research. The framework also serves as a visual tool for resource managers and policy makers to develop regional and global management strategies and to inform policies related to climate mitigation and adaptation.

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