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Forests and Climate Change

Climate Change

We have been burning fossil fuels for almost two centuries, but in addition to the energy it creates, it also releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) that have been building up in the Earth's atmosphere. This excess CO2 traps the sun's energy - heating up the atmosphere like a greenhouse. This warming trend has begun to cause changes to local climates. In New York these changes include higher temperatures, more frequent and intense storms year-round, more rain in the winter, more frequent summer droughts, and higher sea levels. These changes in turn are expected to impact our health, our ability to produce food, and the survival of native plants and animals.

The Role of Forests

Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, a process known as sequestration, and then store the carbon in their leaves, roots, and trunks, as well as in the soil. According to the US Forest Service, New York's 18.6 million acres of forests hold 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon - this is equivalent to the carbon dioxide that would be released if we powered all the houses in New York State with fossil fuels for the next 100 years. The amount of carbon that can be stored and removed by a forest depends on factors like the forest's age, health, and type. Forests with higher carbon benefits are those with:

  • healthy trees
  • no competition from invasive species
  • natural regrowth and replacement of trees
  • many tree species
  • a wide range of tree ages
  • low soil disturbance
mature forests have higher carbon storage but lower carbon sequestration
Images by Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science
young forests have lower carbon storage but higher carbon sequestration

The bigger a tree is, the more carbon it is storing, but as forests get older, the higher competition between trees reduces the amount of carbon taken in per year. Because of this, mature forests with slower growing, shade tolerant trees store more carbon and sequester less carbon each year than younger forests with faster growing, sun-loving trees.

Climate Change Impacts to Trees and Forests

While being an important tool to combat climate change, forests throughout New York State will also be impacted by climate change. Higher temperatures will lead to drier soils, higher survival of forest pests and diseases over the winter, and more competition from invasive plants. These changes will particularly affect northern New York forests with higher concentrations of hemlock, fir and spruce trees that prefer a cooler climate. More extreme weather conditions will lead to increases in flooding, runoff, soil erosion, and summer wildfire risk. Wetland forests and moist forests, such as those found along rivers and lakes, are expected to be the most impacted by extreme droughts and flooding. Sea level rise will lead to flooding and permanent loss of forests along the coast in southeastern New York. In all forests, changes in the timing of spring and fall frosts will increase damage to tree roots and flowers.

These changes will put increased stress on trees, resulting in:

  • more tree damage and mortality
  • changes in local tree species composition as growing conditions no longer support certain species
  • lower seed production
  • lower natural tree regeneration due to increased competition from invasive plants and higher levels of deer browse
  • lower survival of planted trees

New York is Taking Action

New York State is working towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (leaves DEC website). As a part of these efforts, DEC's Division of Lands and Forests serves on the Agriculture and Forestry Advisory Panel, which provides recommendations and technical expertise to the New York Climate Action Council, a committee that will help to achieve the State's energy and climate agenda.

To maintain and increase the amount of carbon removed and stored in New York's forests, DEC's Division of Lands and Forests uses the following strategies:

  1. Keep forests as forests (avoided conversion)
  2. Support the use of wood for long-term products and to replace fossil fuels (bioeconomy)
  3. Plant more trees and forests across New York State (afforestation and reforestation)
  4. Promote and use sustainable practices while harvesting timber and manage both State and privately-owned forests with carbon storage, carbon sequestration, and climate resilience in mind (improved forest management)

Keep Forests as Forests

Because of trees' ability to absorb and hold on to carbon, forests sequester and store more carbon than any other type of land use. However, forest land area in New York has been steadily declining over the past 10 years due to development and conversion to other types of land use, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions, from the removal of trees from the landscape and disturbance of forest soils, and the loss of the land's ability to sequester carbon on those sites. Purchase of forest land by public entities like the State and local governments provides the most reliable long-term protection of forests. Currently, 4.8 million acres of forestland is owned by the State, local municipalities, or land trusts in New York.

Ongoing efforts to protect New York's forests include avoiding forest conversion by:

Support the Wood Products Industry

Carbon can be stored in wood products for centuries, which is long enough to have a real impact on climate change. Using durable, long-lasting wood products to replace fossil fuel-intensive ones like plastic, concrete, or vinyl amplifies the benefits of managing our forests. According to the University of Washington, using wood to frame a house releases 26% less greenhouse gas emissions than steel and 31% less than concrete. Additional information and guidance for forest product use in New York can be found on our Forest Products webpage.

Responsible Management and Timber Harvests

DEC manages State Forests for the greatest benefits for the people of New York, including recreation and biodiversity, and to promote long-term forest health. DEC harvests timber on State Forests according to the sustainability standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®-C002027) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) (links leave DEC website) - two organizations internationally recognized for establishing principles that ensure wood products come from responsibly managed forests. Using methods that ensure these forests remain healthy for generations, like following best management practices (such as minimizing soil disturbance and ensuring adequate tree regeneration) helps prepare forests for climate change by increasing climate resilience.

Learn more about some of the ways you can prepare forests for climate change.

Read more about DEC's timber harvest program on our Timber Sales on State Forests webpage.

Private Landowners Can Make a Difference

74% of New York's forestland is owned by more than 700,000 private landowners. Are you one of them? There are several ways you can care for your forest with climate change in mind while still pursuing other goals for your land. When managing your forest, we suggest always using a professional forester (DEC Cooperating Forester Program).

Plant New Trees and Encourage Natural Regeneration

Planting trees and allowing forests to naturally regrow removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In addition to absorbing carbon dioxide, trees provide many important benefits including water filtration, flood prevention, wildlife habitat, and spaces for recreational activities. The areas that would benefit the most from tree planting or natural regeneration include open areas with little agricultural value, urban areas, and along rivers and streams.

To increase the number of trees in New York State, DEC offers trees and assistance through several programs.

Prepare Your Forest for Climate Change

To help forests better survive a changing climate, landowners should consider:

  • working with a forester to select the best management options for your forest (DEC Cooperating Forester program),
  • growing many different tree species,
  • encouraging the growth of more climate resilient species like oaks and hickories,
  • maintaining a wide range of tree ages,
  • keeping out or removing invasive species and deer to help trees regrow naturally, and
  • minimizing soil disturbance.

The following resources are available to landowners in New York to give additional technical assistance and/or funding for forest management.