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Boreal forests threatened by climate change

"Boreal forests have the potential to hit a tipping point this century," said researcher Anatoly Shvidenko.

By Brooks Hays
Boreal forests threatened by climate change
The taiga in Canada's Yukon Territory. Photo by Pi-Lens/Shutterstock

LAXENBURG, Austria, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- The loss of forest mostly calls to mind the clearing of precious rainforests, but a less tropical type of forest is also under threat. New research suggests boreal forests will require much stronger protections if they are to survive global warming.

Scientists at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) say boreal forests, or the taiga -- a chilly biome characterized by coniferous forests of mostly of spruce and pine -- are already losing out to shifts in temperature and precipitation.

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The climate is changing faster than trees can migrate.

Though some world leaders are taking geopolitical steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and thwart climate change, boreal forests will require stronger protections to withstand the anthropogenic climate change that has already been (and will be) set in motion.

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"Boreal forests have the potential to hit a tipping point this century," IIASA researcher Anatoly Shvidenko said in a press release. "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."

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The taiga -- which extends in a thick band east and west across Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia -- is one of the largest biomes on Earth, making up nearly a third of the planet's forest area. It's home to a range of plants and animals, as well as sources of fuel and lumber for local economies and indigenous peoples.

As temperatures rise, precipitation totals fall and melting permafrost disrupts the biome's hydrological system, the planet's boreal forests are increasingly under pressure. Growing threats from wildfires and harmful insect pests are making matters worse. If stronger conservation measures aren't taken, researchers say, large swaths of the taiga could transition into grassland and shrubby tundra.

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"These forests evolved under cold conditions, and we do not know enough about the impacts of warming on their resilience and buffering capacity," explained Shvidenko.

What's worse is that a deteriorating taiga would further accelerate global warming, as Earth's boreal forests are transformed from carbon sink to a source of CO2.

The report from IIASA was published in the journal Science.

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