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Climate change

Long-term changes in temperature and precipitation patterns have a strong influence on the capacity of landscapes to provide ecosystem services to people. Different places will be affected differently, but all of the Appalachian region will continue to experience change.

Water — The impact of climate change on water quality and availability is likely to vary regionally, and outcomes will depend on interactions with human population growth and other factors. Models are sometimes characterized by high uncertainty, but this will be an increasingly crucial issue to understand in the Appalachian region. Average temperature increases may broadly result in reduced water availability, although some areas may be negligibly affected. Rural populations may be more strongly affected than urban populations, due to their stronger reliance on ground water. Frequencies of precipitation extremes potentially associated with flood and drought conditions have increased in recent decades, and this trend is expected to continue. The effects of extreme precipitation events on streamflow can depend strongly on vegetation composition and structure and impervious surface cover. This is true in forested as well as more urbanized and agricultural lands. Low and high flows associated with extreme events may be mitigated, or exacerbated, by forest management practices, urban planning, and other factors.

Timber and nontimber forest products — Habitat suitabilities for harvestable species are likely to show large-scale geographic shifts, and at the local level, expected declines in economically important species will not always be compensated by increases in economically equivalent species. Changes in temperature and precipitation may interact locally with harvest pressure to increase declines, and this risk may be of particular concern for species which are not well monitored or regulated, such as those supporting nontimber forest product markets.

Carbon storage —The impacts of climate change on the capacity of ecosystems to store carbon are likely to vary across landscapes, and interactions with other landscape dynamics will add complexity. For example, rising temperatures can enhance forest growth and carbon storage, but this can be offset by reduced water availability during droughts, and both of these effects depend on which tree species are most common. Changes in the frequency of fire due to temperature and precipitation changes will also modify carbon storage, especially where wildland fire reduces forest cover.

Rural landscape values and outdoor recreation — Long-term changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can have negative impacts on the unique sense of place and quality of life of rural communities, when the viability of different economic activities and the natural character of landscapes are affected. These long-term changes have the potential to re-structure forest ecosystem species compositions, and could, in combination with other stressors, endanger some unique Appalachian ecosystem types. Tourism, recreation, and long-term patterns of rural migration are also likely to be affected by changes in climate, as visitors and new residents seek out particular conditions.


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