Vulnerability Assessment of Austin’s Urban Forest and Natural Areas
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.