The Revenge of the Beech Trees Is Already Underway

"There's no easy answer to this one.'

Flickr / Infomastern

Not all trees are created equal, at least not in the eyes of humankind. Over the years, as human needs drove the development of the timber industry, some trees were neglected in favor of more economically useful species. Perhaps the most rudely snubbed is the mighty beech tree, a silver-clad giant that’s long been overlooked by furniture makers and flooring producers who preferred maple and birch.

But the beech tree has set its plans for revenge in motion, report scientists from the University of Maine and Purdue University in an article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology on Monday. Their 30-year study of the growth patterns of trees in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada showed that beech trees have been steadily putting their roots down with the help of climate change-induced shifts in temperature.

The scientists aren’t sure what exactly is driving the sudden influx of beech trees. “There’s no easy answer to this one. It has a lot of people scratching their heads,” said Aaron Weiskittel, Ph.D., a University of Maine associate professor of forest biometrics and modeling and a study co-author in an statement to the AssociatedPress on Monday.

“Future conditions seem to be favoring the beech, and managers are going to have to find a good solution to fix it.”

Beech trees are beginning to dominate the forests of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada.

Flickr / Infomastern

Analyzing forest composition data collected by the U.S. Forest Service between 1983 and 2014 in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, the researchers saw a significant change in the proportion of trees making up that region’s forests. They used to be equally populated by American beech, maple, and birch. Now, the number of sugar maple, red maple, and birch trees has declined, whereas numbers of American beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees have spiked. The only explanation for this shift the researchers offer is that the region’s “higher temperature and precipitation,” caused by climate change, has something to do with it.

“Consequently, a clear shift in species composition is currently underway in the beech-maple-birch (BMB) forests of the north-eastern USA, with uncertain consequences for future ecosystem structure and function,” they write.

Among the uncertain consequences they mention is the impact that the American beech’s newfound dominance will have on the timber industry, which relegated beech to firewood status in the first place. Perhaps even more concerning is the possibility that beech will spread “beech bark disease,” which kills young beech trees that are in turn replaced by newer, younger beeches that also succumb to the same disease, potentially leading to the creation of dead zones in the forests.

Unfortunately, since we can’t seem to do what it takes to stop climate change — let alone figure out how shifts in temperature are setting the stage for the beech tree’s takeover — there isn’t much we can do to quell the arboreal uprising, which is already well underway.

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