Boreal forests in danger from climate change

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Boreal forests in danger; experts call for transition to adaptive forest management
Researchers suggests that the increase in warmer and drier conditions may have been one of the reasons behind increased extent of wildfires, and the spread of outbreaks of dangerous insects.

Boreal forests, which make up nearly 30 per cent of the global forest cover, are in danger from climate change, a new study has suggested. Experts involved in the study have called upon governments to transition to adaptive forest management so as to secure future sustainable development of these natural resources.

In an article in journal Science, scientists at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Natural Resources Canada, and the University of Helsinki in Finland have raised a red flag over boreal forests’ potential of hitting a tipping point calling for a need to focus on climate mitigation and adaptation.

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Experts based out their warning on review of recent research in the field suggesting that boreal forests are most affected by climate change. This is because of the inability of the trees to migrate northwards at a rate more than or equal to the increasing temperatures. According to IPCC’s most pessimistic scenario, RCP 8.5, temperatures in the arctic and boreal domains have been warming at the average rate of 0.5°C per decade, and may further warm up by anywhere between 6 to 11°C over vast northern regions by 2100.

Boreal forests make up about 30 per cent of the total forest cover on the planet. These forests, spread across four major regions on the planet, play a vital role in the Earth’s climate system by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, from the biodiversity perspective they are home to a plethora of plants and animals.

Beyond providing substantial amounts of wood for lumber and biofuel production, these forests provide economic and resource opportunities for local and indigenous people.

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According to studies on boreal forests, climate zones in these areas are moving northwards ten times faster than the trees’ ability to migrate. Researchers suggests that the increase in warmer and drier conditions may have been one of the reasons behind increased extent of wildfires, and the spread of outbreaks of dangerous insects.

Further, thawing permafrost poses threats to the hydrological system at the continental scale, as well as the potential of releasing huge amounts of CO2 and methane.

Locally, increasing non-forestry industrial development, accompanied by air pollution, soil and water contamination, might reinforce the negative impacts of climate change.

Experts note that these factors, when combined, peg boreal forest as being in high risk of impoverishment or change to grassland or shrubland.

“These forests evolved under cold conditions, and we do not know enough about the impacts of warming on their resilience and buffering capacity,” says IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program researcher Anatoly Shvidenko.

Not only have experts called upon governments to transition to adaptive forest management, they have also urged for constant monitoring and research to continuously assess the state of boreal forests and improve the understanding of feedbacks and interactions in order to decrease the risk of catastrophic tipping points, where the forests switch from being a net sink for CO2 to a major source of increased greenhouse gas emissions.