Vulnerability Assessment of Austin’s Urban Forest and Natural Areas

Brandt, L.A.; Rottler, C.; Gordon, W.S., Clark, S.L; O’Donnell, L.; Rose, A.; Rutledge, A. King, E.
Posted on: 10/30/2020 - Updated on: 10/30/2020

Posted by

Leslie Brandt



The trees, developed green spaces, and natural areas within the City of Austin’s 400,882 acres will face direct and indirect impacts from a changing climate over the 21st century. This assessment evaluates the vulnerability of urban trees and natural and developed landscapes within the City Austin to a range of future climates. We synthesized and summarized information on the contemporary landscape, provided information on past climate trends, and illustrated a range of projected future climates. We used this information to inform models of habitat suitability for trees native to the area. Projected shifts in plant hardiness and heat zones were used to understand how less common native species, nonnative species, and cultivars may tolerate future conditions. We also assessed the adaptability of planted and naturally occurring trees to stressors that may not be accounted for in habitat suitability models such as drought, flooding, wind damage, and air pollution. The summary of the contemporary landscape identifies major stressors currently threatening trees and forests in Austin. Major current threats to the region’s urban forest include invasive species, pests and disease, and development. Austin has been warming at a rate of about 0.4°F per decade since measurements began in 1938 and temperature is expected to increase by 5 to 10°F by the end of this century compared to the most recent 30-year average. Both increases in heavy rain events and severe droughts are projected for the future, and the overall balance of precipitation and temperature may shift Austin’s climate to be more similar to the arid Southwest. Species distribution modeling of native trees suggests that suitable habitat may decrease for 14 primarily northern species, and increase for four more southern species. An analysis of tree species vulnerability that combines model projections, shifts in hardiness and heat zones, and adaptive capacity showed that only 3% of the trees estimated to be present in Austin based on the most recent Urban FIA estimate were considered to have low vulnerability in developed areas. Using a panel of local experts, we also assessed the vulnerability of developed and natural areas. All areas were rated as having moderate to moderate-high vulnerability, but the underlying factors driving that vulnerability differed by natural community and between East and West Austin. These projected changes in climate and their associated impacts and vulnerabilities will have important implications for urban forest management, including the planting and maintenance of street and park trees, management of natural areas, and long-term planning.


Brandt, L.A.; Rottler, C.; Gordon, W.S., Clark, S.L; O’Donnell, L.; Rose, A.; Rutledge, A. King, E. 2020. Vulnerability of Austin’s urban forest and natural areas: A report from the Urban Forestry Climate Change Response Framework. Report NFCH-5. Houghton, MI: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Climate Hubs. 82 p.

Affiliated Organizations

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) works to support the American agricultural economy to strengthen rural communities; to protect and conserve our natural resources; and to provide a safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for the American people. The Department’s wide range of programs and responsibilities touches the lives of every American every day. This factsheet provides information about some of our agencies and offices, their missions, responsibilities, and services they provide.

The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) has been designed as a collaborative effort among the Forest Service, universities, and forest industry to provide information on managing forests for climate change adaptation, enhanced carbon sequestration, and sustainable production of bioenergy and materials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service is a Federal agency that manages public lands in national forests and grasslands. The Forest Service is also the largest forestry research organization in the world, and provides technical and financial assistance to state and private forestry agencies. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, summed up the purpose of the Forest Service—"to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run."

NRCS works with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners across the country to help them boost agricultural productivity and protect our natural resources through conservation.The conservation practices NRCS promotes are helping producers prepare for what’s ahead. From systems that help improve the health of the soil and water to restoring wetlands and wildlife populations, we’re helping to ensure the health of our natural resources and the long-term sustainability of American agriculture.

Related Resources