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Rainforests of Central Africa unequally vulnerable to climate change, development

A road bisects a thick expanse of forest in the northern Congo, an area of rainforest that researchers say needs more attention if it is to survive both climate change and development. Photo by IRD/Nicolas Barbier
A road bisects a thick expanse of forest in the northern Congo, an area of rainforest that researchers say needs more attention if it is to survive both climate change and development. Photo by IRD/Nicolas Barbier

April 21 (UPI) -- The dense tropical rainforest of Central Africa occupies more than 500 million acres, making it the second largest in the world.

The belt of moist broadleaf forests hosts hundreds of millions of trees and some of the planet's most biodiverse ecosystems. Like most tropical forests, the Congolian rainforest faces a variety of threats, including human development and climate change.

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According to a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, some regions of the Congolian rainforest are more vulnerable than others -- environmental threats and ecological vulnerabilities are unevenly distributed.

With the help of forestry managers and records from logging companies, researchers catalogued more than 6 million trees spread across 185,000 plots of land. The massive dataset helped scientists map abundance and distribution of tree species across Central Africa.

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A better understanding of a forest's composition can help scientists more accurately predict how different parts of the forest will be impacted by climate change -- knowledge that can help policy makers craft more targeted protections.

"The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet," first author Maxime Réjou-Méchain said in a press release.

"It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity," said Réjou-Méchain, an ecologist at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development.

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More than just trees, the Congo Basin is hope to some 10,000 plant species, more than a third of which are found nowhere else on the planet.

The region's habitat shelters forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos and lowland and mountain gorillas, in addition to hundreds of other mammal species.

Thousands of bird species either live in or pass through the Congolian rainforest, and the region's rivers host hundreds of fish species.

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"This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate -- humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall -- and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture," Réjou-Méchain said.

The latest analysis determined forests along the northern and southern borders of the Central African rainforest are more vulnerable to climate change, as are those along the Atlantic Coast and within the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to more than half the Congolian rainforest.

Scientists have made the data compiled for their research publicly available.

Researchers said they hope other scientists will mine the dataset for insights into the region's biodiversity and vulnerabilities.

"These results must now be used and applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests," said co-author Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury.

"In places where human pressure is too great, managers could re-establish these connections through biodiversity restoration programs or the development of agroforestry," said Gourlet-Fleury, a forest ecologist at CIRAD.

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