Boreal forests and Climate Change: Better management practices needed
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have caused global air and sea surface temperatures to rise approximately 0.8 Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the beginning of the 20th century, contributing to a plethora of problems worldwide from rising sea levels to desertification. A new study published in Conversation Letters finds that global temperatures may start to increase even faster if more is not done to protect Earth's boreal forests.
Boreal forests, or taiga, are forests of cold-adapted trees that encircle the globe from latitudes of approximately 50 to 70 degrees north. The world's largest biome, boreal forests cover much of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere, and comprise approximately 25 percent of the planet's total forest area. They also contain more than 35 percent of all terrestrially bound carbon, stymying its release into the atmosphere.
According to Jon Moen, an author of the report, a failure of global climate change policies to properly support boreal forests could prompt forests to emit more carbon than they consume, potentially contributing significantly to increased global temperatures.
"The scary part is if the thawing permafrost, increased fires, drought and insect attacks release the carbon that is stored in the boreal zone, we might see temperatures increase even more," Moen said.
Boreal forests are found in some of the world's wealthiest nations, including the U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. But Moen says many government policies, as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, fail to properly incentivize sustainable forest management practices.
"The absence of boreal forests from global policy agendas on sustainable development and climate change mitigation represents a massive missed opportunity for environmental protection," he said.
"We believe that the carbon stores in boreal forests are underestimated and that the risks following the release of carbon from soils and peat are not well understood, so there is need for more knowledge and attention on these issues."
According to Moen, the European Union has also failed to integrate forests into its climate change policies, but that steps have been taken to better support and manage Europe's vast forests.
"In Sweden and Finland there are increasing discussions on more sustainable forestry practices, but progress is slow," he said. "The E.U. is discussing a common forest policy, but timber-rich countries generally do not see that as a positive step as they do not want outside interference with this economically important sector."
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Forest image via Shutterstock.