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Global heating threatens northern forests

In the last month, fires have ravaged forests in both Canada and Russia. This is just the latest of many similar examples.

Global temperature increase is taking a heavy toll on forests in the northern hemisphere, leading to events such as forest damage due to drought, harmful insect attacks and increasing the risk of forest fires. Here are some examples of related reports in the media in recent months.

Seventy-five active wildfires burned in Alberta in Canada in May 2023, with 23 listed as out of control, and more than 100 wildfires burned across the province of British Columbia in July 2021.1 There was a similar picture in the western US two years ago, with several wildfires in the forests of far northern California where flames have already forced many communities to evacuate.2

At least 21 people died in wildfires in Russia’s Ural mountains in May 2023, according to state media. Wildfires have raged in the Kurgan region of the Urals and in Siberia. Local media reported that most of the dead were older people unable to leave their homes. A state of emergency was introduced in Kurgan province, where more than 5,000 buildings have burned down.Fires have also engulfed thousands of hectares in Sverdlovsk province, and areas of Siberia’s Omsk and Tyumen provinces. The EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said its data showed “active fires burning in a band stretching from Russia’s Chelyabinsk region across Omsk and Novosibirsk regions to Primorye in the far east, also affecting Kazakhstan and Mongolia.3

In recent years many forest fires have also been reported from the Mediterranean region and central Europe. Forest experts have called for immediate improvements in Germany’s forest fire protection as incidents cost the country over 600 million euro in 2022 in damages to health, nature and the economy. Regional heat records in northern Germany, drought in many regions, and large forest and field fires in the east plagued the country in the summer of 2022.⁴ The impact of changing climate conditions on Germany’s forests has become an increasing cause for concern in the country over the past few years as a series of exceptionally hot and dry summers has inflicted great damage.

Forest loss in Germany is considerably higher than previously thought according to researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).5 For the first time, they have made visible how much of the forest inventory has been lost throughout Germany. The results are alarming: from January 2018 until the end of April 2021, some 501,000 hectares of tree loss have been recorded in Germany. This represents almost five per cent of the entire forested area, and thus considerably more than previously assumed. The triggers are primarily considered to be unusually intensive periods of heat and drought in these years, which in turn favoured infestation by harmful insects. The view from space shows that it is mainly central Germany with its conifer forests that is affected, from the Eifel and Harz mountain ranges to the Thuringian Forest and the heights of Saxon Switzerland. Within three years, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone lost more than a quarter of its pine forests and, in some counties, over two-thirds. Trees died or were sacrificed in large-scale distress felling. Deforestation is often the last measure in cases of massive pest infestationIt is not just pine forests that are affected by the consequences of drought. The analyses show that in addition to pine, which is the most common tree species in Germany, oak, beech and spruce forests show considerable damage.
Further impacts of this type due to global heating could seriously impair the ability of northern forests to act as a carbon sink.

Reinhold Pape

1 The Guardian 12 May 2023
2 The Guardian 2 July 2021
3The Guardian 10 May 2023
4 Clean Energy Wire, 1 August 2022
5 German Aerospace Centre, 21 February 2022



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