Botanists Read the Tree Leaves For Climate Change

By Tom Bacon

Douglas firs are everywhere in Washington and Oregon. They are the keystone for the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. And now, climatologists see a new role for the ubiquitous conifers - as early warning canaries in the coal mine of climate change.

Researchers in the Washington Department of Natural Resources fear that predictions of warmer seasons year-round in this region will have serious implications for the Douglas fir and other conifers - and for the economy as a whole. Doug firs - which are not true firs at all - depend on optimal chilling in wintertime and then warming growing conditions to trigger spring growth.

Without enough winter chilling, Doug firs won't leaf out normally in the spring. DNR botanists also worry about trees which set and open their buds earlier than normal because of warmer winter spells, and risk damage from sudden spring frosts.

Researchers from DNR's seedling orchard near Olympia have been recording data for several years about exactly when  common conifers break bud and flower. It's not just an academic exercise, either.
DNR scientists link climatic impacts on Douglas firs and other conifers to impacts on the state's economy.

The Doug fir is the dominant commercial species in Washington. Just last year, the tree accounted for 45 percent of the total harvest in the state. And more than 70 percent of the one billion board feet of logs exported from Washington last year was Douglas fir.
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