Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
From California’s giant sequoias to the ancient Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, old trees worldwide are dying at a rapid rate.
The Story: According to a new study, climate change and human activities such as logging and mining are driving the death of older trees around the world, which is changing the makeup of forests and driving species extinctions, reported Craig Welch for National Geographic. By analyzing more than 160 studies and satellite imagery, researchers discovered more than a third of the world’s old-growth forests have been degraded from 1900 to 2015, leaving behind younger forests and reducing the ability of global forests to absorb carbon emissions.
The Big Picture: “We’re approaching a situation where the forests cannot acclimate,” said ecologist Henrik Hartmann. “There are individual species that are being driven beyond the threshold of what they can handle.” As climate change accelerates, pest outbreaks, wildfires and droughts are becoming more frequent, putting forests around the world at risk. Experts agree that protecting nature is critical to stopping climate change — and a recent study found that growing more forests and restoring damaged ecosystems could remove as much as two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that humans have been putting in the air since the 1880s.
Read more here.
In addition to planting new trees, keeping existing forests standing is crucial to ending the climate crisis.
The Story: As politicians and conservationists back an international initiative to plant 1 trillion trees to help stop climate change, experts stress the need to first protect existing forests and decrease global dependence on fossil fuels, reported Bob Berwyn for InsideClimate News. While planting new forests would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions released by humans, recent studies show that there is not enough available land to plant 1 trillion trees — and that protecting standing forests would offer more immediate carbon storage than planting new forests.
The Big Picture: “Bringing life back to land isn’t always about planting trees,” said Nikola Alexandre, a forest restoration fellow at Conservation International, in an interview with Conservation News. “Nature has a remarkable ability to bounce back from disturbances on its own, especially if it’s given even a bit of support.” According to Alexandre, protecting and restoring existing old-growth forests is one of the most effective ways to stop climate change, and is 70 percent cheaper than planting new trees. “There are certain times when it’s important to plant trees … but planting should really only occur in areas that are not going to naturally regenerate so that restoration investments can be used where they’re most vital.”
Read more here.
The changing climate could disrupt growing conditions for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest.
The Story: A recent study found that the suitable growing regions for corn and soybeans in the United States may move northward within a single generation due to climate change, reported Daniel Cusick for Scientific American. By using artificial intelligence, the researchers were able to model different climate change scenarios and determined that there will be fewer optimal areas to grow corn and soybeans — both of which require high humidity — in states such as Illinois and Iowa that have traditionally dominated corn production in the U.S. As conditions change, farmers in these states may struggle to produce high crop yields, threatening food and job security in the region, the authors explained.
The Big Picture: "It's time to carefully consider and plan for the possibility of dramatic new geographies of food and energy production,” said Patrick Roehrdanz, a scientist at Conservation International. “Shifting zones of climatic suitability for agriculture would have major impacts on global economies and place new pressures on our remaining natural lands." A 2019 study co-authored by Roehrdanz found that global heating will expand the frontiers of agriculture all over the world, making it possible in the near future to grow certain crops in places that were once inhospitable to them. While expanding farming into new areas could increase agricultural output in some areas, it could also decimate species populations and trigger deforestation in forested places that are not typically farmed.
Read more here.
Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods are likely to become more frequent as climate change accelerates, which could put the United States’ 91,500 dams at risk of collapsing if states do not strengthen them, engineering experts say.
Cover image: Redwood forests in California, United States (© Welcomia)