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Forests: Climate Time Bombs?
We are turning carbon sinks into carbon emitters.
For decades, environmentalists were called “tree huggers.” While this started as a derogatory term, a funny twist of fate has arguably made the world’s biggest polluters tree huggers. Everyone from Apple to oil giants like Chevron are investing billions of dollars per year in “natural carbon capture” schemes, most of which revolve around protecting verdant forests, which pull carbon out of the atmosphere to build their monolithic bodies. But man-made climate change is rendering these once great carbon sink ecosystems into perilous climate tipping points. But how?
Climate change isn’t an isolated phenomenon. As we heat up the planet, ecosystems within it change, some quite drastically. These changing ecosystems, in turn, influence the climate. As such, positive feedback loops can occur, which can act to dramatically amplify man-made climate change. Sadly, forests are one of these feedback loops, or climate tipping points, as they are also known.
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You see, a forest can store a mind-blowing amount of carbon. As the trees and plants grow through photosynthesis, they build their bodies from carbon they have captured from the air. When they die, some of this carbon is released, but a portion of it is stored in the soil. These soils are kept stable through the retaining roots and microorganisms of the forest. This is how, over millennia, a forest can store billions of tonnes of carbon and cool the planet.
But, if these forests were to wither and die, the carbon stored in the soil and in the biomass of the forest itself would be released back into the atmosphere and heat the planet. Sadly, this is what is happening today, thanks to climate change.
Trees worldwide are dying from droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods and more rampant diseases, all of which are being made worse by climate change. We have had a rather graphic example of climate change-related forest deaths this year, with widespread wildfires across the planet. In Canada alone, wildfires (which have been linked to climate change) destroyed a record-breaking 25 million acres of forest so far in 2023. That is an area larger than Portugal!
This destruction isn’t going unnoticed.
Nathalie Breda from France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research has said their forests are facing a “health crisis” and that “the extreme weather that we’ve had has triggered problems that will last for years.” According to recent studies, French forests absorbed 31 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021. That might sound good, but 10 years earlier, it was absorbing nearly double that at 60 million tonnes! There has been a slight reduction in French forests due to logging, but not enough to cause this massive drop-off. Instead, the culprit seems to be droughts, wildfires and diseases, increasing the tree mortality rate by 54%! Again, all of these can be strongly linked to climate change. This problem is so bad that some forests in the country’s East and North are no longer capturing carbon but emitting it!
Research has found similar problems across the pond in North America. A recent study from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities researchers and their collaborators shows the deadly effects of global warming on nine North American Boreal tree species. The study found an increased mortality rate in the juveniles of these species thanks to reduced rainfall and global warming, stifling the forest’s ability to repair itself. They also found that climate change is leading to more precipitation occurring in less events, causing more run-off and soil erosion. This can severely impact the nutrients available in the soil and, again, damage the growth of the forest, reducing its ability to uptake carbon.
However, the Amazon is in far worse shape and is far more of a pressing concern than the North American or European Forests.
The Amazon is one of the most carbon-rich environments on Earth. Yet new analysis has shown that 75% of the untouched forest has lost stability since the early 2000s, meaning it takes much longer to recover after droughts and wildfires. What’s more, drought and wildfires are becoming both more frequent and more potent in the area thanks to climate change. This makes the chance of widespread die-off in the Amazon far more likely and, according to the scientists, means that we are very close to reaching the Amazon climate tipping point. Previous estimates found that an Amazon die-off would happen when global warming reaches 3.5 degrees Celsius, which is possible with our current level of climate progress. If or when this happens, roughly 90 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will be released, which will noticeably warm the entire planet.
So, what can we do with this information? Can we mitigate this damage? Should we change our approach to fighting climate change?
Well, this strongly suggests that we need to stop relying on forests as carbon storage. They aren’t a reliable enough storage vessel. Yes, we need to fund schemes that protect them and help them grow back quicker to ensure the carbon already stored within them doesn’t leak back out. But we shouldn’t be using this as a carbon offsetting scheme, as it just legitimises yet more planet-wrecking emissions. What’s more, it indicates that we have to start reigning in our emissions far faster than we are, as we are nearing some catastrophic environmental and climate consequences that, once started, can’t be stopped.
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