Species On The Move

As climate change impacts habitats around the world, species are on the move, trying to adapt — and survive.

About This Species

There are a number of varieties of Christmas tree, but none as iconic as the Douglas fir, the evergreen conifer native to western North America. Its range covers central California, western Oregon and Washington, and it often establishes itself in moist areas in the wake of wildfires. 

Thanks to its thick bark, Douglas firs can survive moderate fires, and a single tree can live for a thousand years. That means old-growth forests with large Douglas firs can help piece together the history of wildfires from hundreds of years ago. Because they live so long, and because of the canopy they create in the forest, Douglas firs provide an important habitat for other species.

Douglas fir Christmas tree climate change range

Climate change is changing the range of the Douglas fir—the iconic Christmas tree. (Credit: Noël via Flickr Creative Commons)

Most Douglas firs grow far taller than your living room, hitting heights between 70 to 250 feet tall. The tree's branches spread and droop, and the needles are dark green or blue-green. They're soft to the touch and have a sweet smell when crushed. The trees became a favorite for Christmas in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s, when they would be cut from the wild. Since the 1950s or so, most Christmas trees have come from tree farms.

Current Status

The Douglas fir can be found throughout its range currently. It can thrive in a variety of climates, but is directly impacted by a few key factors, like precipitation and temperature during the growing season and the average temperature of the coldest month.

The Douglas Fir's Shifting Range

As the climate in western North America gets warmer and drier, the Douglas fir's range is expected to shrink and shift inland.

Map: Christmas tree climate change range shifts

Source: US Forest Service (Paul Horn/InsideClimate News)

Douglas Fir Obama Whitehouse Christmas Tree climate change

Volunteers decorate a Douglas fir, the tree of choice for a number of Whitehouse Christmas trees during the Obama administration.

Looking Forward

The Douglas fir is considered a genetic specialist, meaning that its growth and mortality rates are dependent on its growing environment. There's a narrow climatic range in which Douglas firs are best able to grow. This means that as the climate of the western United States changes, the trees will have to move to follow that optimal climate. According to a 2012 study funded by the U.S. Forest Service, as climate change progresses, the trees will shift inland from the coast and will become less productive. 

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