Climate Change Could Mean Big Changes For Europe’s Forests

Though they have survived fires, insect outbreaks and logging, the forests of Europe may now face their biggest challenge ever – climate change. Disrupted weather patterns could intensify droughts, fires, storms, pest infestations, species loss, and other natural calamities harmful or even fatal to forests.

Rather than wait until Europe’s forests begin to die off, the European Union is taking steps to prevent such a catastrophe. The EU is supporting leading-edge research to help forest managers decide what kind of trees they should plant now, and what kind of pests and diseases should be monitored today so they won’t become a problem in a climate-changed future.

“Forests are incredibly complicated ecosystems that climate change can disrupt in equally complicated ways,” says Herve Jactel of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, leader of the EU-funded research project BACCARA.

Launched in 2009 with Eur3 million in support from the EU, BACCARA is a four-year project that is working to assess how climate change will affect the biodiversity and productivity of Europe’s forests. BACCARA is one of many joint efforts being undertaken during the ‘Year of the Forests’, which the United Nations declared for 2011 in order to help conserve the biodiversity of forests and sustainably manage the world’s forestlands.

To remove some of the guesswork from managing Europe’s forests, BACCARA’s researchers are trying to predict how certain kinds of trees will fare in terms of growth and pest-resistance in the decades and centuries to come. Among their findings, researchers have learned that the very complexity of forests might be the best insurance for coping with climate change.

“Planting several different species of trees, for example, can protect forests from insect attacks better than planting just one type of tree,” Herve Jactel points out. “So if climate change can cause harmful insects to thrive, this would be a good strategy to combat pests.”

The problem for everyone involved with managing Europe’s forests is that many types of trees can live for centuries, so a tree planted today could have to deal with climate changes for a very long time. So the challenge is to design multi-species ‘mixed’ forests that are more resilient against climate hazards.

The economic stakes are high for Europe, whose forest industry is worth Eur25 billion a year and provides 4 million jobs. Totalling some 1 billion hectares, Europe has more forestland than any other region in the world – from cork-oak and cypress forests along the Mediterranean, to the Scots pine taiga of Scandinavia and mixed forests of the Caucasus.

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