CompassLive Science Shorts

Climate Change and Red Spruce

Red spruce seedlings are planted in common gardens to study how environmental conditions and genetics interact to affect tree growth and health. Photo by John Butnor, USFS.

Red spruce faces a variety of challenges in the southern Appalachians — from past exploitative logging to land use change and forest fragmentation, and now climate change. A three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation is investigating historic red spruce decline in abundance and range shifts — as well as how those shifts might continue in the future.

The project is led by Stephen Keller at the University of Vermont, with contributions from John Butnor, Kurt Johnsen, and Chris Maier of the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station and partners with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

A foundational species at higher elevations, red spruce (Picea rubens) provides unique habitat for fauna typically found much farther north and an iconic feeling of simply being the mountains. The tree’s range shifts have occurred along with local adaptation, a process by which populations within a species vary genetically and evolve over generations in response to their local conditions. Local adaptation can happen on broad, regional scales or on a single mountain — at the bottom versus the top.

This information will be used to advise red spruce restoration efforts by selecting genotypes that are best suited to cope with future climate conditions and to enhance diversity.

Read more about the project in this Northern Woodlands article. For more information, email John Butnor at