The boreal forests (also known as the taiga) describes forests in the northern-most hemisphere, typically composed of conifers like pine and spruce. Climate change, on the other hand, describes changing circumstances brought on by a gradually warming planet, partially due to human influences. According to a release from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the two are on a collision course, and only one will remain.
“Boreal forests have the potential to hit a tipping point this century,” says IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program researcher Anatoly Shvidenko. “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 forestss account for about 30% of Earth’s total forest coverage, and they also happen to be the world’s largest terrestrial biome. That makes them important for humans (due to their oxygen production) and animals alike, which makes their potential disappearance all the more concerning.
Boreal forests grow near the Arctic. The problem is that Earth’s colder regions are affected by climate change to an alarming degree, with temperatures rising faster than the environment can adapt. Currently, the ideal climate for boreal forests is creeping northward 10 times faster than the trees can migrate. At current rates, the northern regions could warm by 11 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.
“These forests evolved under cold conditions, and we do not know enough about the impacts of warming on their resilience and buffering capacity,” says Shvidenko.
Recent warming has also led to drier conditions, allowing wildfires to spread faster than normal. Fewer trees in a warmer environment also encourages outbreaks of destructive insects, which could have a significant impact on neighboring human populations.
If the boreal forests do reach their “tipping point,” the will go from being a natural sink for CO2 gas to contributing more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. That would only further accelerate global warming, and the cycle would continue unabated.