Around one third of the earth’s surface is covered in forest. It significantly counteracts climate change, storing around 653 billion tonnes of carbon. This corresponds to a global emissions volume of around 75 years. Find out what the forest is still capable of and how it is currently doing.
Forests can mitigate the impacts of climate change, such as heat waves, floods and storms. This happens when forest belts sustainably lower the temperature through evaporative cooling. For example, the temperature in Munich and that of the surrounding forests can differ by up to 10°C. Forest stands protect the earth from erosion and floods. They also reduce the impact of storms. This is because trees absorb vibrations, breaking the force of the wind.
How does climate change affect forests?
At the same time, forests suffer from changes in environmental conditions. The German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture announced that the past three drought years, the severe bark beetle infestation, storms and the increased incidence of forest fires have also caused extensive long-term damage to German forests. The forest condition survey published in February 2021 reports the worst results since 1984. Four out of five trees have sparse crowns. The condition of the crown is like a clinical thermometer. It indicates how the trees are doing. The forest condition survey revealed that German forests are sick, said Julia Klöckner, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, at the official presentation of the forest condition report.
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Forests are not doing any better in other parts of the world. Many people recall the devastating forest fires in the Amazon rainforest in 2019. Apart from occasional fires intentionally set for land clearing, they were mainly caused by a drought that was unusually extreme even for the dry season: in August, 471,000 hectares of forest, pastures and fields burned in just five days.
Forest conservation is climate protection: measures for healthy forests
There are many global initiatives aimed at conserving healthy forest stands. The researchers of the "Treewatch" project at Ghent University in Belgium have taken an unusual course of action. They have equipped trees with sensors. The sensors monitor all vital functions, from the roots to the crown, and send the collected data by Wi-Fi directly to Treewatch. The researchers have also set up Twitter accounts for individual trees. If the sensors detect that the tree is too dry, it tweets: "Help, I’m thirsty!"
The small German start-up "Vision Impulse", a branch of the research centre in Kaiserslautern, uses Artificial Intelligence (AI). Based on satellite images, data is collected on trees and used to detect long-term damage to forests. The goal of the company is to document the health of forests around the world through automated systems. To achieve this, "Vision Impulse" uses artificial neural networks. These networks learn by themselves how to recognise patterns in the forest images. The first step is to record outlines; eventually they are able to distinguish between individual tree species. It is still difficult to apply the neural networks to different forested areas, explains company founder Benjamin Bischke. "After all, the Palatinate Forest looks different from the Amazon", says Bischke. He is currently working on a faster way to transfer his AI models so that they can be better deployed in different parts of the world.
Planting forests to combat climate change
One important means of restoring and preserving forests is afforestation. If forest stands are too badly damaged, natural regeneration – the emergence of trees from seeds that have fallen or blown in from the surrounding vegetation – is no longer sufficient. Additional trees need to be planted. There are many international agreements on forest restoration. These include the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), which was adopted in 2014 with the goal of stopping deforestation completely. It also aims to replant forests and tree-rich landscapes on an area of 350 million hectares by 2030. "The New York Declaration on Forests is a tremendous success and an important means to stop deforestation worldwide. It is not only supported by various governments, but also by private corporations and certain segments of the population, such as indigenous peoples", explained Peter Holmgren, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) at the international Colloquium on Forests and Climate at Columbia University in New York, 2014.
Sustainable forest management
Sustainable forest management also leads to more forest and climate protection. This is the conclusion of "Nordic Forest Research", a research initiative that includes Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Greenland. Trees that are growing absorb more CO2 than they release. For old trees, the opposite is true. In a managed forest, older trees with reduced growth are harvested and replaced with young ones. Harvesting trees and managing forests are therefore key to maintaining high growth and carbon sequestration. Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who is considered the founder of sustainability, was already aware of this. More than 300 years ago, in 1713, he described sustainability as an economic principle in forestry and supported it scientifically in his book "Sylvicultura Oeconomica". This is how von Carlowitz changed the world. Today, the term is not only known in forest management. Sustainability takes into account ecological, economic and social aspects and is an integral part of the corporate strategy of many companies and corporations throughout the world.