Business Farming

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Climate change taking a huge toll on world's forests

Published 19/08/2014 | 00:00

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Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that more trees need to be planted across Ireland to mitigate the impact of climate change
Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that more trees need to be planted across Ireland to mitigate the impact of climate change

THE European Forest Institute (EFI), which is based in Finland, has warned that Europe's forests are increasingly under pressure from wind, bark beetles and forest fires.

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The EFI says that climate change is already altering the environment and long-lived ecosystems such as forests are particularly vulnerable to rapid changes in the climate system.

Meanwhile, a new international study published this week in the Nature Climate Change journal shows that damage from wind, bark beetles and wildfires has increased drastically in Europe's forests.

"Disturbances like wind throw and forest fires are part of the natural dynamics of forest ecosystems, and are not, therefore, a catastrophe for the ecosystem as such. However, these disturbances have intensified considerably in recent decades, which increasingly challenges the sustainable management of forest ecosystems", says the study.

The authors show that damage caused by forest disturbance has increased continuously over the last 40 years.

This trend is set to continue and the study estimates that forest disturbances will increase damage by an additional million cubic metres of timber every year over the next 20 years.

The scientists identified climate change as the main cause of increased forest disturbance.

Damage from forest fires was the main problem on the Iberian Peninsula, while bark beetle damage increased most strongly in the Alps. Wind damage rose notably in Central and Western Europe.

The study notes that these disturbances amplify climate change and that there is strong feedback from forest disturbances on the climate system.

Europe's forests are mitigating climate change by taking up large quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

The carbon loss from increasing tree mortality and disturbance could reverse the positive effects of forest management aimed at reducing climate change.

In this scenario, adapted management strategies, such as increased biodiversity and optimised thinning interventions will become more important.

Diverse

In Ireland, climate change concerns are leading to an increased emphasis on expanding the number of species we can rely on to maintain a diverse planting programme.

It is encouraging that Teagasc, in association with UCD and UCC, now require e a commercial partner to help market their birch and alder improvement programme.

Dr Ellen O'Connor has overseen this project since 2004.

"The long-term research objective has been the development of a sustainable supply of improved, adapted and healthy seed of birch and alder within the framework of the EU Forest Reproductive Material (FRM) regulations," she explained.

Parent material was developed within this programme and is now available for commercial development. The upscale of seed production to meet national annual requirements will involve setting up an indoor seed orchard."

Oliver Sheridan, who also works on this research project with Teagasc, has operated the seed orchard. He emphasised the importance of building up expertise: "It is important to build up expertise in managing an indoor seed orchard as it requires constant monitoring due to changing growth conditions.

"This important resource and associated know-how will be made available to selected parties to produce and market improved planting material that can be registered at the Qualified level."

"The seed orchard development, with close association to the breeding programme, will ensure a continued seed supply of the highest genetic value," he added.

In recent years a number of farmers were lured into establishing plantations of Miscanthus (elephant grass) for biomass production with unhappy results. However, there remains a need to identify the right species and production methods for short rotation forestry (SRF) in order to contribute to Ireland's renewable energy demands.

New research into SRF may have the potential to offset some of the predicted shortfall in supply of timber for biomass and assist in achieving renewable energy targets. A multidisciplinary team from UCD, Trinity College, UL, WIT and Teagasc hopes to evaluate its potential in Ireland.

A collaborative project called ShortFor involving all of these organisations and led by UCD is underway to explore the potential of SRF to meet renewable energy markets. While our renewable energy targets are set to increase to 16pc by 2020, there is a predicted shortfall of 1.7 million m3 of forest biomass in Ireland, with demand set to increase to 3.1 million m3.

There is perhaps a potential role for short rotation forestry (SRF) and other sources of fibre to supply much of this predicted shortfall. This new project runs from 2014 to 2017.

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