Piedmont Forests: The Next 50 Years

The southern Piedmont covers a wide swath from Alabama through Virginia.
The southern Piedmont covers a wide swath from Alabama through Virginia.

Recently, CompassLive highlighted the changes likely to occur in the forests of the Appalachian-Cumberland Highlands over the next 50 years. Scientists with the Southern Forest Futures Project, a multi-agency effort led by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station, released these findings in the first of five subregional reports for the South. This first report addressed the forest management and restoration issues that loom over the next half-century for the South’s highland region.

Now the project has produced its second subregional report titled Outlook for Piedmont Forests. Written by former Forest Service project leader Robert Rummer and Forest Service stewardship coordinator Mae Lee Hafer, the new report follows in the same vein as its predecessor—and its 50-year outlook paints a sobering picture of changes likely to come.

The Piedmont (or “foot of the mountain”) is a plateau region that lies between the Appalachian Mountains and the Coastal Plain. The Southern U.S. Piedmont subregion spans over 78,000 square miles from Alabama through Virginia, stretching from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington, DC.

The subregional report’s findings herald changes across the entire Piedmont and its forests, some of them dramatic:

  • Forested land will continue to dwindle. Depending on the scenario used to generate the forecast, the report’s authors predict a loss of from 1.5 to 6 million acres of forest between 2010 and 2060. This is as much as 21 percent of all current Piedmont forests. Urbanization is the key driver behind this expected loss.
  • The Piedmont will get hotter, and probably drier. Annual average temperatures will rise between about 2 and 5 °F by 2060, depending on the climate model and level of industrial emissions used to generate the report’s forecast outcomes. Worst-case scenarios show summertime high temperatures near 115 °F by 2060 in parts of the Alabama and Georgia Piedmont. Meanwhile, three of four scenarios modeled predict annual precipitation to decrease, with the extreme case showing a decrease of nearly 8 inches of precipitation per year by 2060.
  • Shrinking forest land and changing climate will stress many animal and plant species. These changes will likely threaten the diversity and abundance of bats, salamanders, and other at-risk animal species. Plants such as American ginseng, the endangered Alabama leather-flower, and the rare Oconee-bell may face losses due to habitat changes.    
  • Wildfire season will be longer, and more dangerous. The predicted hotter and drier conditions will increase fire risk in parched forests earlier in the spring, and extend the risk later in the fall. In addition, with growing metro areas encroaching still further upon existing forests, wildfire danger to homes and businesses will increase.

These are just some of the report’s findings (a link to the full report is below). While many of these predictions seem dire, the goal of the report is not to alarm. Instead, it is to help forest managers and other interested parties prepare for a likely future. Armed with this information, the hope is that forest managers’ preparations will mitigate some of the predicted negative impacts.

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Mae Lee Hafer at mhafer@fs.fed.us.

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