Climate: Scientists warn of boreal forest ‘tipping point’

Climate zones in boreal forests are shifting northward ten times faster than the trees’ ability to migrate

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More monitoring, adaptive management needed in crucial forest zones.

Staff Report

FRISCO — The world’s vast boreal forests, stretching around the globe at high latitudes, could reach a climate tipping during this century, according to a team of international researchers who said there needs to be more attention on climate mitigation and adaptation with respect to these forests.

Boreal forests make up about 30 percent of the planet’s total forest area and play a vital role in in the global climate system by capturing huge amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

They also provide significant amounts of wood for lumber and biofuel production, as well as economic and resource opportunities for local and indigenous people, according to the study, led by experts with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Scientists with Natural Resources Canada and the University of Helsinki in Finland also contributed to the study, published last week in the journal Science.

The article, which reviews recent research in the field, is part of a special issue on forests released in advance of the World Forestry Congress in September.

The researchers also pointed out that boreal forests are one of the ecosystems most affected by climate change. Temperatures in the arctic and boreal domains have recently warmed at rates as high as 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade. Without big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures could soar as much as 6 to 11 degrees Celsius over vast northern regions by 2100.

Other studies have shown that climate zones in boreal forests are shifting northward ten times faster than the trees’ ability to migrate. Warmer and drier conditions and enhanced variability of climate may have already contributed to increased extent of wildfires, and the spread of outbreaks of dangerous insects.

In the same region, thawing permafrost poses threats to the hydrological system at the continental scale, and has the potential to release huge amounts of CO2 and methane. Overall, these factors mean that huge areas of boreal forest will be at 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,” said says IIASA researcher Anatoly Shvidenko.

In the article, the researchers called for governments and societies to place greater focus on the health of boreal forests, meaning the forests’ resilience, adaptive capacity, and productivity. Transition to adaptive forest management is an urgent need for securing future sustainable development of boreal forests.

They also stressed the key role of 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.

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