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Why climate change is pushing Earth's boreal forests to 'tipping point'

Boreal forests make up about 30 percent of the planet’s total forest area. Ecosystem scholars say that they are being threatened by warmer temperatures brought on by climate change.

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    Kayakers row along the Biryusa Bay of the Yenisei River in Taiga district outside the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, August 10.
    Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
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International policy makers should set their sights on the protection of boreal forests, international forestry experts argued this week in an article published Thursday in the journal Science. The article was part of a special issue on forests released before the World Forestry Congress is held in September.

“Boreal forests have the potential to hit a tipping point this century,” said Anatoly Shvidenko, a researcher scholar with the Ecosystems Services and Management Program at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). “It is urgent that we place more focus on climate mitigation and adaptation with respect to these forests, and also take a more integrated and balanced view of forests around the world.”

Boreal forests cover the northernmost regions of Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Scandinavia, and make up about 30 percent of the planet’s total forest area. But now experts say that they are being threatened by warmer temperatures brought on by climate change.

"The changes could be very dramatic and very fast," Dmitry Schepaschenko, an IIASA representative, told The Canadian Press.

“Although it [the boreal forests] remains largely intact, it faces the most severe expected temperature increases anywhere on Earth. Mr. Schepaschenko said some parts of Siberia are likely to eventually become 11 C warmer. That will bring greater precipitation, but not enough to compensate for the dryness caused by hotter weather. A drier boreal will suffer new diseases, insect infestations and vast wildfires," The Canadian Press's Bob Weber reported.

The boreal forest, which is sometimes called by its Russian name “the taiga,” is a belt of coniferous trees that sprawl across North America and Eurasia. Lying atop formerly glaciated areas and places with patchy permafrost, these forests are subject to varying environmental conditions. 

Now, Schepaschenko says that the trees cannot move northward, or towards colder climates, quickly enough.

"The forests can't go so far to the north. The speed at which forests can move forward is very slow, like 100 metres a decade,” he said.

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