Forest adaptation to climate change along steep ecological gradients: the case of the Mediterranean-temperate transition in South-Western Europe.
Impacts of climate change are likely to be marked in areas with steep climatic transitions. Species turnover, spread of invasive species, altered productivity, and modified processes such as fire regimes can all spread rapidly along ecotones, which challenge the current paradigms of ecosystem management. We conducted a literature review at a continental-wide scale of South-Western European forests, where the drier and warmer conditions of the Mediterranean have been widely used as examples of what is expected in more temperate areas. Results from the literature point to: (a) an expansion of slow-growing evergreen hardwood trees; (b) increased dieback and mortality episodes in forests (both natural and planted) mostly related to competition and droughts, and mainly affecting conifers; and (c) an increase in emergent diseases and pests of keystone-trees used in agroforestry zones. There is no consensus in the literature that fire regimes are directly increasing due to climate change, but available satellite data of fire intensity in the last 17 years has been lower in zones where agroforestry practices are dominant compared to unmanaged forests. In contrast, there is agreement in the literature that the current spread of fire events is probably related to land abandonment patterns. The practice of agroforestry, common in all Mediterranean countries, emerges as a frequent recommendation in the literature to cope with drought, reduce fire risk, and maintain biodiverse landscapes and rural jobs. However, it is unknown the extent to which the open vegetation resulting from agroforestry is of interest to forest managers in temperate areas used to exploiting closed forest vegetation. Hence, many transitional areas surrounding the Mediterranean Basin may be left unmanaged with potentially higher climate-change risks, which require active monitoring in order to understand and help ongoing natural adaptation processes.