WASHINGTON, DC -- At least one third of the world's forests are expected to be seriously affected by global warming, accelerating the disappearance of both the forests themselves and the wildlife that depends on them, according to a new report released today by World Wildlife Fund.
Particularly at risk are boreal areas in Alaska, Canada and Russia, where up to 40% of the forests could be lost altogether. Faced with the loss of so much of their remaining habitat, already threatened species like the Siberian tiger, the woodland caribou and the grizzly bear could be pushed over the edge of extinction, the report warned.
"Forests are especially sensitive to climate change and we can already begin to measure the impact," said Jennifer Morgan, Climate Policy Officer for WWF-US. "From fires in tropical rainforests to plagues of tree pests in Alaska, what is happening in our forests should serve as a wake up call. Global warming is potentially the most serious and pervasive threat that Nature faces."
The Forests and Climate Change report was issued on the eve of this year's ministerial meeting of the UN Climate Convention, which convenes in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Monday, Nov. 2.
Governments from some 170 countries will spend the next two weeks negotiating formulas to implement the commitments they made a year earlier under the Kyoto Protocol. Under that accord, industrialized nations agreed to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases by an average of five percent below 1990 levels over 15 years.
While this was a step in the right direction, WWF believes that the five percent target will not, even if it is met, reduce emissions by nearly enough to keep global warming from having seriously adverse impacts on wildlife and on biodiversity conservation.
This concern is underscored by the forest report, which notes that global warming is happening much faster than forest ecosystems can be expected to adapt to the change. The problem is compounded by the fact that today's forests are already stressed out and fragmented due to the impacts of human activities like logging, land development and road building.
"Our forests don't have the resiliency they once did. They already are under tremendous human pressure," noted Morgan. "Coming on top of all these other factors, global warming could be the straw that breaks their backs."
Global warming affects forests in a variety of ways. Research indicates, for instance, that a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increases both the incidence and severity of forest fires by nearly 50%. Rising sea levels associated with global warming threaten mangrove forests, among other important ecosystems, while warming waters make hurricanes and other storms both more frequent and severe.
These predictions are doubly troubling because of the role that forests have been assigned to play by the Kyoto Protocol as "sinks" that absorb the CO2 primarily responsible for global warming. During periods of catastrophic forest change, however, forests emit more carbon than they absorb. Indeed, roughly one fifth of all the carbon released into the atmosphere in recent years has come from forest fires.
"What this report demonstrates is that forests are not the magic sponge for soaking up carbon emissions that some people believe,'' said Adam Markham, director of WWF's Climate Change Campaign. "The conclusion is as simple as it is inescapable," he added. "Industrialized nations must make more of an effort to eliminate carbon pollution at the source by reducing their emissions of CO2 at home."