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.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
Kayakers row along the Biryusa Bay of the Yenisei River in Taiga district outside the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, August 10.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.