Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Tree Species and Biome Types in the Northern Rocky Mountains

  • Andrew J. Hansen
  • Linda B. Phillips


If one stands on a peak on the eastern side of the Northern Rocky Mountains on a clear day and gazes across the surrounding landscape, striking patterns of vegetation are apparent. From valley bottoms to ridgetops, vegetation grades from grassland and shrublands to open savannas, from dense tall forest to scattered clumps of krumholtz trees in the alpine above the pronounced treeline (fig. 9-1). These recurrent patterns of climatically zoned vegetation suggest that plants are a logical starting point for understanding biodiversity response to climate change. Plants, once established, are sessile and unable to move to more favorable locations and thus are strongly limited by the local climate. The predictable variation in climate with elevation explains this striking pattern of vegetation in the Rockies. To the extent that climate changes in the future, vegetation is expected to change in establishment, growth, and death rates, in canopy structure, and in the distributions of species and thus to show major shifts upward in elevational distribution.


Suitable Habitat Couple Model Intercomparison Project Phase Representative Concentration Pathway Climate Suitability Great Yellowstone Ecosystem 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Funding was provided by the NASA Applied Sciences Program (10-BIOCLIM10-0034) and the North Central Climate Sciences Center. We thank the authors of each of the studies included in this synthesis for providing original data. William B. Monahan provided extensive review and suggestions on drafts of the manuscript.


  1. Aubry, C., W. Devine, R. Shoal, A. Bower, J. Miller, and N. Maggiulli. 2011. Climate Change and Forest Biodiversity: A Vulnerability Assessment and Action Plan for National Forests in Western Washington. Portland, OR: US Forest Service, PNW Region.Google Scholar
  2. Bell, D. M., J. B. Bradford, and W. K. Lauenroth. 2014. Mountain landscapes offer few opportunities for high-elevation tree species migration. Global Change Biology 20:1441–51. doi:  10.1111/gcb.12504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chang, T., A. J. Hansen, and N. Piekielek. 2014. Patterns and variability of projected bioclimate habitat for Pinus albicaulis in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. PLOS ONE 9 (11): e111669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Colwell, R., S. Avery, J. Berger, G. E. Davis, H. Hamilton, T. Lovejoy, S. Mal-com, A. McMullen, M. Novacek, R. J. Roberts, R. Tapia, and G. Machlis. 2012. Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks. Report. Washington, DC: National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee.Google Scholar
  5. Coops, N. C., and R. H. Waring. 2011. Estimating the vulnerability of fifteen tree species under changing climate in northwest North America. Ecological Modelling 222:2119–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Crookston, N. L., G. E. Rehfeldt, G. E. Dixon, and A. R. Weiskittel. 2010. Addressing climate change in the forest vegetation simulator to assess impacts on landscape forest dynamics. Forest Ecology and Management 260:1198–1211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dawson, T. P., S. T. Jackson, J. I. House, I. C. Prentice, and G. M. Mace. 2011. Beyond predictions: Biodiversity conservation in a changing climate. Science 332:53–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gray, L. K., and A. Hamann. 2013. Tracking suitable habitat for tree populations under climate change in western North America. Climate Change 117:289–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Guisan, A., and W. Thuiller. 2005. Predicting species distribution: Offering more than simple habitat models. Ecology Letters 8:993–1009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. GYCC (Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee). 2011. Whitebark Pine Strategy for the Greater Yellowstone Area. Report.Google Scholar
  11. Hansen, A. J., K. Ireland, K. Legg, R. Keane, E. Barge, M. Jenkis, and M. Pillet. In review. Complex challenges of maintaining whitebark pine in Greater Yellowstone under climate change: A call for innovative research, management, and policy approaches. Forests.Google Scholar
  12. Hansen, A. J., and L. B. Phillips. 2015. Which tree species and biome types are most vulnerable to climate change in the US Northern Rocky Mountains? Forest Ecology and Management 338:68–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Heller, N. E., and E. S. Zavaleta. 2009. Biodiversity management in the face of climate change: A review of 22 years of recommendations. Biological Conservation 142 (1): 14–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hunter, M. L., G. L. Jacobson, and T. Webb. 1988. Paleoecology and the coarse-filter approach to maintaining biological diversity. Conservation Biology 2 (4): 375–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Huntley, B., P. M. Berry, W. Cramer, and A. P. Mcdonald. 1995. Modelling present and potential future ranges of some European higher plants using climate response surfaces. Journal of Biogeography 22:967–1001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Iverson, L. R., S. N. Matthews, A. M. Prasad, M. P. Peters, and G. Yohe. 2012. Development of risk matrices for evaluating climatic change responses of forested habitats. Climatic Change 114:231–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. McKinney, D. W., J. H. Pedlar, R. B. Rood, and D. Price. 2011. Revisiting projected shifts in the climate envelopes of North American trees using updated general circulation models. Global Change Biology 17:2720–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. McLane, S. C., and S. N. Aitken. 2012. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) assisted migration potential: Testing establishment north of the species range. Ecological Applications 22:142–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Pearson, R. G., and T. P. Dawson. 2003. Predicting the impacts of climate change on the distribution of species: Are bioclimate envelope models useful? Global Ecology and Biogeography 12:361–71. doi:  10.1046/j.1466-822X.2003.00042.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Pearson, R. G., J. C. Stanton, K. T. Shoemaker, M. E. Aiello-Lammens, P. J. Ersts, N. Horning, D. A. Fordham, C. J. Raxworthy, H. Y. Ryu, J. McNees, et al. 2014. Life history and spatial traits predict extinction risk due to climate change. Nature Climate Change 4:217–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Piekielek, N., A. J. Hansen, and T. Chang. 2015. Using custom scientific workflow software and GIS to inform protected area climate adaptation planning across Greater Yellowstone. Ecological Informatics 30:40–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Rehfeldt, G. E., N. L. Crookston, C. Saenz-Romero, and E. M. Campbell. 2012. North American vegetation model for land-use planning in a changing climate: A solution to large classification problems. Ecological Applications 22:119–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Serra-Diaz, J. M., J. J. Franklin, M. Ninyerola, F. W. Davis, A. D. Syphard, H. R. Regan, and M. Ikegami. 2014. Bioclimatic velocity: The pace of species exposure to climate change. Diversity and Distributions 20 (2): 169–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Stein, B. A., P. Glick, N. Edelson, and A. Staudt, eds. 2014. Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Island Press 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew J. Hansen
  • Linda B. Phillips

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations