Appalachian Laboratory team receives NSF grant to predict how trees will adapt to rapid climate change

January 24, 2013

FROSTBURG, MD (January 28, 2013)--Since the climate began warming at the end of the last Ice Age, trees have had thousands of years to adapt to a warmer climate. But how will forests adapt to the rapid pace of current climate change? The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.5 million grant to Drs. Stephen KellerAndrew Elmore,Matthew FitzpatrickDavid Nelson, and Cathlyn Stylinski from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory to study climate adaptation in forest trees and predict the areas where trees are most and least adapted to changing climates in the future.  

"We're in a period of warming that is rapid relative to what species have experienced in the past," said lead researcher Stephen Keller. "Trees may not have the time required to develop new genetic mutations that could help them gradually adapt to the changing climate. Whether tree populations will persist in an area or not has a lot to do with whether the right genetic variations for adaptation to future climates are already present, and where they occur across the landscape."

The study will focus on balsam poplar, an important species in North America’s northern forests, where climate change is expected to be especially strong. By sequencing the DNA of hundreds of trees, the researchers will identify genes that are responsible for traits that could ensure survival as the climate changes, especially as spring occurs earlier and summer becomes warmer. This genetic information will be combined with high-resolution satellite maps of the forest's growing season and spatial modeling techniques to identify and map populations of forest trees that are adapted for growth under different climate conditions.

The researchers will pinpoint areas where the trees will face the most significant risk to provide insight into the health of the forests and their ability to grow in the face of a changing environment. This knowledge will allow them to predict regions that could experience forest loss and prioritize those areas for conservation of genetic resources.

“What really sets our study apart is the strength of our collaborative team," said Keller. "By combining genomics, remote sensing, plant physiology, and spatial modeling, we’ll be generating a comprehensive view of how climate change will affect the forests of tomorrow. There are even opportunities for the public to get involved in the study.” 

In coordination with the USA National Phenology Network, the research team will engage citizens to help monitor seasonal changes in poplar and aspen growth, such as spring leaf emergence. Citizens interested in getting involved are encouraged to send an email to

Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg actively study the effects of land-use change on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and how human activity may influence their health and sustainability on local, regional and global scales. The scientific results help to unravel the consequences of environmental change, manage natural resources, restore ecosystems, and foster ecological literacy.

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Photo by Matt Olson