Climate change is pushing the boreal forests that cover much of the northernmost regions of the Earth to a tipping point that could see them threatened by new diseases, insect infestations and huge wildfires, scientists warn.
Boreal forests covering the northern regions of Alaska, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, which make up around 30 percent of the globe's forested area, are under threat from the warmer temperatures resulting from climate change, they say.
The protection of these forests should be a goal of international policy makers, researchers wrote in the journal Science.
"Boreal forests have the potential to hit a tipping point this century," said Anatoly Shvidenko, a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. "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 forests, sometimes referred to by their Russian name "taiga," are forests in the climatic zone in the Northern Hemisphere south of the Arctic regions, dominated by such tree species as poplar, birch and conifers.
They are threatened by warming that could see temperatures rise between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100, researchers say.
Those warmer temperatures will move north up to ten times faster than the forests could adapt by shifting their range, they warn.
"The forests can't go so far to the north," said Dmitry Schepaschenko of the Austrian institute. "The speed at which forests can move forward is very slow, like 100 meters a decade."
That means the northern forests are likely to change from unbroken swathes of trees to isolated groves separated by open grasslands, they predict.
The changes could affect plants and animals that call the forests home, as well as impacting the forests' vital role as a source of large quantities of wood for lumber and biofuel production.
The forests also have a significant part in managing the planet's climate system by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the researchers explain.
All that could be at risk with warmer temperatures invading the boreal forests' home region, they suggest.
"These forests evolved under cold conditions, and we do not know enough about the impacts of warming on their resilience and buffering capacity," said Shvidenko.
Schepaschenko said that uncertainty is a cause for concern.
"There could be big trouble," he said.
Photo: Susan Drury | Flickr