Tag Archives: carbon

The Impact of Climate Change on European Forests

Province of Lleida, Catalonia, Spain (Image Credit: Julia Ramsauer, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

As carbon emissions rise globally, finding ways to reduce emissions and store carbon are coming to the forefront of modern science. Forests are huge carbon stores thanks to the copious amount of photosynthesis they conduct. As climate change increases temperatures, trees become a very important tool in the fight against rising emissions. One study even described forest restoration overwhelmingly more powerful than all other proposed climate change solutions. You might think: “So let’s go and plant trees!” Unfortunately, it’s not so easy.

Trees themselves will struggle with the changing climate. Depending on the tree species, they are adapted to specific physiological balances, especially of air (i.e. temperature) and water (i.e. precipitation). When these balances change, as is to be expected in the course of climate change, the persistence of single trees and even whole forest ecosystems will be threatened.

This means that important decisions about where to plant trees and which kind of species will have to be made. So let’s take a broad look at the future of forests, specifically those in Europe. I’ll go through how scientists actually study the possible impacts of climate change, what kind of uncertainties we are dealing with, and the main impacts of climate change on Europeans forest ecosystems.

How Do Scientists Investigate Climate Change Impacts?

First of all, I want to clarify how scientists study the potential impact of climate change on forest ecosystems. This is important because by understanding how predictions are made, we can quantify the uncertainties underlying such predictions and why we should not blindly assume they are exactly what’s going to happen. Scientists use different types of models to predict how parameters, like tree species distribution or forest productivity, will change within a specific time frame (typically only until 2100, as uncertainties tend to become much larger as time proceeds). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produce large-scale reports on a regular basis, which prescribe different climate change scenarios ranging from the best to the worst cases in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increase. Scientists use these scenarios to model climate change impacts on forests in their study area, be it a single forest stand, a country, a continent, or even the whole world.

Below are a list of the changes that will likely occur in Europe, a continent with very diverse forests ranging from boreal to Mediterranean biomes. I chose this focus because I’m researching in Europe and thus my knowledge is based mostly on the research in this part of the world. However, due to the variety of biomes that can be found in Europe, the following can be extrapolated to a certain extent. Overall, the impacts of climate change will depend a lot on regional climatic and local site conditions but a common scientific ground about what will likely happen in forests does exist.

Linnansaari National Park, Finland (Image Credits Héctor Abarca Velencoso)

Linnansaari National Park, Finland (Image Credit: Héctor Abarca Velencoso, CC BY 2.0)

Forests are very dynamic. On the one hand, they provide habitat for many different animal species, regulate water and air quality, and protect soils. On the other hand, they are exposed to extreme weather events like windstorms and can suffer from forest pests, diseases, and pathogens. If you are in the Mediterranean basin, fire is another factor that occurs frequently. In a functioning ecosystem, these forest dynamics are well balanced but throw climate change into the game and soon enough this delicate balance will be disturbed. So based on climate change models, what are the main impacts on forests that can be expected over the next centuries?

  • Increased forest growth and productivity: due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere, forests are expected to grow faster. However, only if other parameters like water availability are not limiting this.
  • Tree species movements: the relaxation of temperature constraints at the leading edge of a species range will allow slow migration to newly suitable habitats. On the opposite, the rear-edge habitat might become unsuitable due to changed conditions (i.e. lack of water). Scientific evidence suggests that the latter is happening faster than the former, potentially leading to the decrease of forests. Additionally, models only predict the future habitat suitability of a species while the actual response and migration capacity of species is not known.
  • More frequent or extreme disturbances: An increasing level of fire danger, especially in the Mediterranean region but also in Central Europe, is predicted. Pest outbreaks will increase directly through the effects of increased temperatures on insect population growth and increased habitat availability and indirectly by affecting the vitality of the trees due to drought and water stress. Natural extreme events like windstorms, flooding, landslides, and droughts are predicted to increase. However, we have to keep in mind that all the before mentioned disturbances are stochastic events and thus not easy to include in climate change projections. Due to this, current research usually neglects their possible impact. Additionally, climate change predictions usually present mean values over a specific time horizon as results, but forests only partly respond to changes in climate means. Many changes in forests happen as a response to extremes. Thus, the lack of such extremes in current modeling schemes causes considerable uncertainties when assessing the likely response of forest ecosystems. In combination with other uncertainties like the actual adaptation and migration capability of tree species, make predictions only reliable to a certain extent.
  • Implied effects on the environment: More severe and frequent wildfires will lead to the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Fires, other natural hazards, and disturbances like forest pest outbreaks will likely lead to the loss of biodiversity, changed water regulation functions, and increased soil erosion.

Our Role Going Forward

Forests are crucial for the fight against climate change. However, forests in Europe and many other parts of the world, have been managed by humans for many centuries, to the point that Europe has precious little natural forest left. Thus, a very powerful tool to reduce the impact of climate change, a human-induced phenomenon, is again in the hands of humans. Tree growth and forest adaptation take time, thus management decisions that are taken now will not show their effect immediately but only within the next couple of centuries. Another complication is the fact that forest stands which are great at storing carbon are often poor for biodiversity. For more on this issue, read yesterday’s paper review.

Due to this, forest managers need to implement strategies regarding climate change right now without knowing if their measurements are the right ones. The goal would be to create more resilient forests that will be adapted to changing future conditions. Climate change models are a powerful tool to support such decisions. Nevertheless, uncertainties are inherent to the system we are trying to forecast and thus unavoidable. As waiting for improved evidence and information cannot be the solution, scientists and forest managers are faced with a lot of challenges. You are probably thinking right now (at least I hope so) about what humans can do to prepare our forests for the changes to come. The good thing about the existence of models that include climate change predictions is that they allow potential solutions to be investigated. So fear not, my next article will at least answer some of your questions!

Julia Ramsauer is a landscape ecologist currently working on the integration of ecosystem services in the Mediterranean region. To keep up with her work, or listen to the latest episode of her podcast, Environmental Science Careers, you can follow her on Twitter here.

 

Fighting Climate Change While Maintaining Biodiversity: Can It Be Done?

Mapping co-benefits for carbon storage and biodiversity to inform conservation policy and action (2019) Soto-Navarro et al., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0128

The Crux

With the world under so many anthropogenic pressures simultaneously, trying to come up with management solutions for different issues can be a problem. Climate change and biodiversity are a great example. Storing carbon is a great way to reduce the effects of climate change, and increasing the range of forests worldwide is a great way to increase carbon storage. Yet the sort of forests that store carbon most efficiently are often poor at promoting biodiversity. They are largely made up of very similar trees, while forests that include brush, scrubs, and other layers often store less carbon, but house more biodiverse communities.

As such, finding areas that are prime specimens for a) storing carbon and b) biodiversity conservation are incredibly important, so that managers at every level (from park rangers right up to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) can know where interests overlap, and adjust plans accordingly.

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The Recycling Crisis

Despite what the Magic School Bus, Captain Planet and other environmental icons from our childhood taught us, effectively recycling an object is not as simple as simply ensuring it goes in the right bin. This presents problems, as our ability to recycle effectively is currently being greatly diminished by a number of factors. Between “wish cycling” by consumers, poor infrastructure at the municipal level, and Asian countries refusing to take the mounting amount of single-use waste other countries are producing, the Global North’s recycling is facing a sharp drop in efficiency. So let’s look at some common recycling misconceptions.

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Palm Oil vs. Whaling: When Any Action is Not Enough

Clearing for palm oil forests in Borneo. Norway recently made headlines with a government mandated reduction in palm oil imports, but there were of course those who found a negative here (Image Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Clearing for palm oil forests in Borneo. Norway recently made headlines with a government mandated reduction in palm oil imports, but there were of course those who found a negative here (Image Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Around 7-8 months ago, Norway made the news when the government decided to place restrictions on the import of palm oil. Over the last few months, reports have shown that the move has made quite a difference, dramatically reducing the amount of palm oil brought into the country. I figured it would be hard to see this in a negative light.

But of course I was stupid enough to look at Facebook comments.

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The Big Challenge: Increasing City Biodiversity

Image Credit: GuoJunjun, CC BY-SA 3.0 NO, Image Cropped

The Big Challenge Science Festival is currently in Trondheim, bringing a host of celebrities, scientists and futurists together. Their goal is to present solutions for the challenges the planet currently faces, and get people thinking about how they can adjust their lives to help the planet. While there are some big names in attendance, there are also a large number of local students and scientists working tirelessly on stands, and it’s them that I spent yesterday working alongside.

There’s some fantastic stuff on display. I was particularly impressed by the use of VR in a couple of exhibitions. One stand presented a worst case scenario for warming planet, with one of Trondheim’s most famous laneways submerged in water (although the man clinging to a floating car tire waving for assistance may somewhat disturb the kids). Nearby was another VR experience where you could shoot cars, carbon molecules and chimneys, transforming them into bikes, trees and solar panels respectively. The tent next to us had a great range of displays, presenting practical and simple options for living sustainably and also letting you snack on insects and other arthropods!

Our own stand was part of the Futurum exhibition, which postulated how Trondheim may look in 2050. It focussed on biodiversity, and how Trondheim’s wildlife will change over the next 30 years with increasing urbanisation and a warming climate. On loan from the Natural History Museum was a selection of species that could conceivably arrive in Trondheim with a 1-2 degree temperature increase. It was fun to see kids’ faces contort at the thought of a parrot being a common presence in Trondheim, but with Ring-Neck parrots already as far north as Brussels, it could happen within their lifetime.

I was pleasantly surprised at the willingness of some children to accept that new species weren’t necessarily a good thing. Most of them were entranced by the sight of a grey squirrel, but readily understood that it could mean the demise of the red squirrel and some local bird life. Likewise, I was surprised at how many parents could immediately recognise the species likely to disappear from Trondheim, and acknowledge how many more Black-Headed Gulls and Northern Lapwings they could see only twenty years ago.

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NTNU’s Tanja Petersen explains how species life the Pacific Oyster or the Grey Squirrel could be in Trondheim within 30 years (Image Credit, Øystein Kielland, CC BY 2.0)

It was also encouraging to see how many people have started to let portions of their garden grow wild in an effort to allow insects, and thus birds and mammals make their way back into urban areas. The exhibition had 2 fantastic videos compiled by Øystein Kielland focussing on the difference between a green area and a biodiverse one, and how fragmentation has devastated local plant and insect populations. So the number of adults who had already started letting areas around their house grow unchecked was encouraging. Two particular highlights were the couple who eagerly showed us the badger who had recently taken up residence in their backyard, and the girl who nodded eagerly and started telling me all about her insect hotels.

One thing I always struggle with in these situations is communicating uncertainty. Whilst it’s fun to see jaws drop at the thought of parrots in Norway, it’s difficult to communicate the ‘maybe’ factor in the amount of time it takes to engage someone in these issues. The point of the Big Challenge is to get people to act, so I hope that people walk away thinking that if they don’t start living more sustainably there could be huge species’ turnover, but I don’t want to present a worst case scenario, or talk in absolutes about issues that are very much only possibilities. So any success stories you’ve had communicating uncertainty in these scenarios would be very much welcome below!

I’ll be back at the Futurum exhibit at Krigseilerplass near the Royal Garden today. If you’re in Trondheim, I highly recommend stopping by. You can read more about the event here.

Why Australia is Approaching a ‘Climate Change’ Election

Image Credit: Tim J Keegan, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

This weekend, Australia will have a federal election. My country will vote, not on an individual leader, but on the party that will form government for the next 3-4 years. We’ve been led by the conservative Liberals (yes, the right-wing party are called the Liberals, it’s stupid) since 2013, and that time in Australia has not been kind to the environment. A tax on carbon was repealed almost as soon as it was implemented, prioritising large businesses has caused potentially irreversible damage to iconic ecosystems around the country, and a disregard for the potential impacts of climate change have been a trademark of the present government.

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The Shifting of Ecological Baselines

Bushfires like the ones that have ravaged Australia and California this year could become the new norm for the generation that has been born in the last decade, an example of how our perception of ecological change is defined by what has happened in our lifetime

Bushfires like the ones that have ravaged Australia and California this year, could become the new norm for the generation that has been born in the last decade, an example of how our perception of ecological change is defined by what has happened in our lifetime (Image Credit: dm4244, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

It’s no secret that our world has undergone rapid changes in the last few decades. Extreme weather events are becoming almost the norm and species seem to be going extinct every minute. But as depressing as this may seem, the general doom and gloom we hear about the world on a daily basis still only represents a small percentage of the ills we’ve inflicted on our planet since we’ve been here.

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