Basic Information:
Forests


Forests cover about a third of Earth's surface. Half of all known plant and animal species, and 20 to 25% of all arthropod species, inhabit forests, particularly forests in warm tropical regions. Forests are the source of some of the world's most important renewable resources, including timber, paper goods, and non-wood products such as fruit, cocoa, coconut, rubber, and medicines. Forest ecosystems help clean the air, provide drinking water, prevent erosion, and preserve biodiversity. For many people, forests are places of recreation, aesthetic beauty, and spiritual value.

Forests also reduce the impacts of climate change. Forest ecosystems provide some of the world's largest carbon sinks, or storehouses. During photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and release oxygen. The carbon is then stored, or sequestered, in roots, trunks, branches, and leaves. Carbon uptake slows as trees mature, but many old-growth forests continue to sequester carbon in the soil for hundreds of years. Worldwide, forests sequester "the largest fraction of terrestrial ecosystem carbon stocks . . . equivalent to about 220% of atmospheric carbon." i


Unfortunately, forests are being rapidly destroyed in many parts of the world. They are cleared for agriculture or pasture, logged, mined, and degraded by human land-use practices, such as fire suppression. When forests are cleared, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that tropical deforestation alone is responsible for 20% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

Forests, indispensable for their role in the carbon cycle, will not themselves endure climate change unchanged. As the climate warms, ecosystem composition will likely shift. Trees will die and species will change. Such shifts can decrease or even reverse the carbon uptake of a forest, causing a "carbon flux." Additional carbon in the atmosphere will then further catalyze climate change, creating a negative loop of intensification.



While warming temperatures are partly to blame, trees must also contend with more-frequent and severe disturbance events such as droughts, insects, and fires. Trees already stressed by drought are most susceptible. Massive tree die-backs result from bark beetle infestations, drought, and warmer temperatures; this is already evident in the piņon-juniper woodlands of the American West and Canada's boreal forests. According to the IPCC, boreal forests-coniferous forests covering parts of Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, and Russia-are most vulnerable to disturbance events.

As temperatures warm, mountain and other high-altitude habitats will be increasingly encroached upon by adjacent lowland biomes.ii In turn, boreal forests will likely migrate northward and invade arctic tundra. Some models project that with a doubling of atmospheric CO2, forests will replace between 11 and 50% of tundra.

One of the most significant elements of climate change impacts associated with changing land composition is the loss of biodiversity and other ecosystem services, such as water and air filtration. Such risks are especially virulent in biodiversity "hotspots," such as equatorial and temperate rainforests. According to IPCC research, most species extinction and extirpation related to climate change will occur in the early 21st century. Climate change will only exacerbate the worldwide extinction crisis caused by other anthropogenic factors, most notably tropical deforestation. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that one in four mammals may be at risk.

For some Native peoples, forests are the embodiment of harmony and balance-a complex system working together seamlessly to create a balanced web of life. Their value lies beyond the price of timber, and thus their destruction is more catastrophic for Native people. From time immemorial, indigenous cultures have relied on forests for food, shelter, and medicines, as well as spiritual and mental health. Global warming may disrupt the ability of forests to provide subsistence for those who rely on them-plants, animals, and humans alike. For example, climate change is impacting Native basket weavers of the American Northeast who rely on brown ash. Drought and insect infestations have predisposed the tree species to high mortality rates, which will intensify as climate change progresses. Other tribes are finding medicines and other traditional plants difficult or impossible to collect as forest composition changes. As climate change disrupts the forest system, traditional life ways may likewise be thrown into turmoil until Earth once again finds her balance.



  1. Fischlin, A. et al. 2007. "Ecosystems, their properties, goods, and services. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability." Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson [Eds.]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 211-272. p. 227.

  2. Fischlin, A. et al. 2007. "Ecosystems, their properties, goods, and services. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability." Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson [Eds.]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 211-272. p. 228.




©2002 Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals & Northern Arizona University
Last updated: February 6, 2009