The USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station develops science for current and future management needs related to climate change. RMRS conducts research on climate impacts, and also develops new approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation, including strategies that help make forests and grasslands more resilient, communities more prepared, and green markets more viable. RMRS has expertise across a broad spectrum of climate change related areas, summarized below. Click each heading to learn more, or review our publications and products related to climate change in the menu on the left.
Climate change affects forests as increasing temperatures and altered precipitation patterns contribute to shifting species distributions, changes in seasonal cycles and phenology, increased susceptibility to pests and disease, and more frequent and severe fires. RMRS scientists are working to model and understand these impacts, from local or species-specific effects to broad-scale landscape changes. Our research also contributes to improving forest resilience to climate change and understanding how management actions can support adaptation and recovery.
Dryland ecosystems are thought to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of higher temperatures and more frequent drought. RMRS research investigates how these ecosystems are likely to respond and how management strategies can support resilient ecosystems. RMRS scientists have conducted broad-scale syntheses and assessments of dryland ecosystems like sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woodlands. We have also developed tools to assess the vulnerability of arid ecosystems to climate change, model the interactions of anticipated climate change with management decisions like grazing, and rapidly detect drought impacts to target response efforts. Our science also informs restoration practices that ensure restored ecosystems will thrive under future climate conditions and support resistance to invasive grasses.
For over 60 years, RMRS has been at the forefront of wildland fire science: improving firefighter safety, developing risk management frameworks for fire, and introducing new concepts like firesheds and spatial fire planning. We also work in the wildland-urban interface to help protect communities from catastrophic fire and provide crucial insights into the water and air quality effects of prescribed and wildland fire. Climate change is altering fire regimes and increasing the occurrence of catastrophic fires with impacts to lives, communities, wildlife habitat, and other values we care about. Additionally, RMRS scientists are working to understand the ecological and human impacts of these changes, such as conversion to new vegetation communities following fire, to improve fire management, and to support ecosystem recovery and resilience. RMRS is also poised to help overcome barriers to increasing the pace and scale of prescribed fire.
Water quantity and quality has broad implications for agriculture, industry, municipal drinking water, hydropower, recreation, and conservation of aquatic habitat and wildlife. RMRS conducts research on the vulnerability of western watersheds to a changing climate. Long-term studies on changes in the snowpack, timing and type of precipitation, and timing of snowmelt and runoff have allowed RMRS to lead in some of these fields. We have developed predictive models that forecast changes in water quantity and quantity from national forest lands. Researchers also investigate water quality following disturbances like fire, as well as the impacts of warmer water temperatures on native fish and other aquatic species.
Climate change is affecting wildlife directly, as warmer temperatures create conditions inhospitable to certain species, and indirectly, as more frequent drought and severe fire reshapes wildlife habitat. RMRS research is investigating the climate impacts on species ranging from bull trout to spotted owls. We are working collaboratively with land managers to develop science-based conservation strategies. RMRS scientists, working at large scales, are mapping landscape connectivity, understanding wildlife movement in response to climate change, and identifying priority corridors and habitats. We are also innovating approaches like the use of environmental DNA to detect the presence of rare and invasive species.
RMRS science has long supported forests and grassland restoration after disturbances, regeneration of species of interest, and restoration of historical fire regimes with sound science. For example, RMRS scientists have collaboratively authored ponderosa pine, dry mixed-conifer, sagebrush, and pinyon-juniper restoration guidelines with managers, developed new approaches to regenerate western white pines and larches, and identified ways to strengthen the supply and composition of native seeds for post-fire restoration. This research is helping to manage or restore resilient systems able to withstand future climate change impacts, like more frequent fires and prolonged droughts.
RMRS science is particularly applicable to land management planning, through which future management of large landscapes is informed by the best available science along with public, stakeholder and other values. Opportunities for climate change adaptation and mitigation through land management can be identified during this process. RMRS science has often been developed specifically for National Forest or Regional land management planning efforts, including regional climate change vulnerability assessments, development of specific climate change adaptation strategies and tactics, evaluations of the condition and stressors of riparian ecosystems, and more. These studies are often co-developed by our scientists working with land managers to understand critical information gaps.
Climate models and vulnerability assessments are important tools developed by scientists for managers to predict future climates and associated impacts and identify highly vulnerable areas. RMRS scientists have expertise in vulnerability assessment work on scales ranging from individual forests to broad regions and landscapes. We also develop scenarios, climate models, and climate projections in support of the national Resources Planning Act Assessments, which report on the status and trends of the Nation's renewable resources on all forests and rangelands.
RMRS research helps quantify the impacts of climate change on human communities, including air and water quality impacts, extreme heat, and wildfire risks. This research helps communities better understand future risks and make collaborative, science-based decisions to prepare and adapt. RMRS researchers have also focused on incorporating traditional and community knowledge in climate science and working with Tribes to understand climate change perceptions and planning on Tribal lands.
Carbon sequestration by healthy forests is a key tool to address climate change. Research has shown some western forests transition from carbon sinks to carbon sources following impacts by pests, drought, and fire. RMRS scientists have leveraged national-scale data sets like the Forest Inventory and Analysis program and long-term research on Experimental Forests and Ranges to provide the foundation for better land management practices related to carbon sequestration, carbon markets, conservation finance, and other carbon management solutions. We are working to better understand key processes driving carbon cycling in forest soils and to improve measurements of atmospheric carbon flux. Additionally, RMRS scientists are actively developing tools to help project the impacts of management actions on future carbon stocks, map aboveground biomass and carbon, and understand the role of disturbance and management actions on carbon storage at management-relevant scales. RMRS is also invested in research on biomass use and bioenergy, including efforts to determine economic feasibility, support strong, integrated markets, and develop new production methods and applications for biochar.
Climate change can increase susceptibility to forest pests and diseases. Warmer climate often drives pests and pathogens to epidemic levels and expansion into new areas. In other cases, climate change disrupts pest and pathogen life cycles or shrinks their ranges. RMRS science is quantifying these impacts, identifying new threats, and understanding patterns of resistance. RMRS scientists have developed new approaches to detect and monitor outbreaks and to control pests and pathogens, including through biological control and targeted forest management.
USDA Climate Hubs are a source for practical, proactive thinking about climate change. RMRS scientists partner with and support USDA Climate Hubs. Working with partners, the Hubs assess regional forest, rangeland, and agricultural vulnerabilities in a changing climate and develop decision support tools to track and respond to climate impacts.