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Warming temperatures are prompting some tree species in the Rocky Mountains to 'migrate' to higher elevations in order to survive.
Climate & Environment | Study

Trees and forests are on the move in Canada, thanks to this


Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, May 9, 2017, 11:32 AM - It's strange to imagine, but it's true: Trees and forests are able to move.

Though the process is gradual and a natural part of plant migration, scientists say that the speed at which the trees move has recently increased — a product of Earth's rising temperatures. Some species of trees may now be moving at a speed of roughly 100 kilometres a century, National Geographic reports, using forest migration to survive in the planet's warmer climate.

A new study from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, finds that the trees aren't operating alone in their escape plan: Tiny organisms living beneath the ground have a significant role in the massive migration of trees.

Researchers have found that microscopic bacteria, fungi, and archaea that interact with plant roots — all together, they are known as the soil microbiome — could be encouraging tree migration to protect heat-sensitive tree species.

These biotic communities are invisible to the human eye, but scientists are saying that the underground networks are responsible for helping trees move up hills and mountains, notably in the Rockies, by creating "soil highways" for young trees.

This would mean that the microscopic organisms can determine how fast species would move uphill, and whether or not they move at all.


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The discovery is significant among the scientific community, helping researchers better understand and estimate where vital tree species may live in the future.

"One general expectation is that tree ranges will gradually move toward higher elevations as mountain habitats get hotter," Michael Van Nuland, the project's lead researcher and a doctoral student in UT's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, told Phys.org. "It is easy to see the evidence with photographs that compare current and historical tree lines on mountainsides around the world. Most document that tree lines have ascended in the past century."

Canadian Rocky Mountains tower behind Lake Moraine at Banff National Park. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But, as with all living species, trees are impacted by more than just temperature. They also rely on interactions with other living organisms, particularly their microbiome.

By experimenting with the soil beneath a common cottonwood species that lives across several states in the U.S. Rockies, Van Nuland and his team found that trees grown in soil near the base of the mountains (where they are found naturally) grew better than cottonwoods grown in soil from the top of the mountains.

It was the opposite for trees found at higher elevations, which thrived in soil from much higher elevations

"This indicates that we need to work with the trees near the bottom of the mountain, because they are the ones that will feel the most stress from warming temperatures," Van Nuland told Phys.org. "So we have to figure out a way to coax them to move up."

The findings were published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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