Garden of Eden. Image credit:UK HardLine, excerpted.
Would you like to visit a pristine forest? A forest untouched by the hand of (wo)man? Well, you can't. Not because I won't let you, but because there isn't one. Long ago, our ancestors came down from the trees but they never really left them. Trees are just too useful and important to people. Our relationship with them is long and deep. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, around two thirds of forests show obvious signs of recent human activity or use, ranging from industrial logging operations to small scale harvesting of foods, medicines, and
materials. Those forests are known as secondary. The remaining third, the primary forests, don't have obvious signs of use by people. The operative word here is 'obvious'.
No stone unturned, even in the Amazon.
Let's take a look at the Amazon basin, surely the best example of an untouched forest. Well, as more and more of the forest is cut down, signs of vanished civilizations are exposed. Not big stone temples like you'd find in Cambodia or Mexico, but stone circles and giant runes carved into the soil. In the heart of the Amazon, the very soil itself appears to be made by people. Around a tenth of the soil contains high levels of charcoal and organic material, put there by the large population that lived in the Amazon basin prior to the European conquest.
Similar stories can be told about any other forest in the world: the vast stands of white pine discovered by settlers in Eastern Canada that grew up due to fires started by Native Americans; the extermination of the wolf in the US that allowed deer to devour the trees unmolested.
Anywhere we look, the forests have been altered by people, directly or indirectly. But so what? That was then and this is now.
Well, the actions of those people will determine the way in which forests respond to climate change. Forests have long memories. Trees live for hundreds of years, soils can retain the human footprint for thousands. Tropical forests seem to be absorbing large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Part of this is due to the increase in the concentration of the gas itself, part due to increased sunlight as clouds disappear, but part is also due to the recovery of the forests following human disturbances that occurred generations earlier.
The interaction between poor logging practices and climate is very clear. Destructive logging opens the forest canopy, which dries the forest floor and makes it flammable. As temperatures increase, those logged forests will burn and disappear. Already, vast areas of logged tropical forest have been lost to droughts.
It doesn't have to be this way. Careful logging and small-scale use by forest communities maintains the forest canopy, making fires less likely. Unfortunately, the economic pressures to log unsustainably are great. The way in which other kinds of past and present management will interact with climate change is largely unknown. That is why further research on this topic is urgently needed.
As part of this effort, researchers across the world are establishing sample plots in forests that have been used and affected by people in different ways. One example is the HSBC Climate Partnership in which Earthwatch is involved. Repeated monitoring of the trees in these plots will reveal the climate signal over time, allowing management systems that minimize harmful interactions to be selected.
Tree tagging. Image credit:Earthwatch
The idea of wild, untouched forests is not supported by scientific evidence. Human civilisation and forest landscapes share a long and intimate history. In a world of growing population and climate change, understanding and appreciating that connection should be paramount.
By: Dan Bebber, Head of Climate Change Research, Earthwatch Institute
Dr Dan Bebber joined Earthwatch as Head of Climate Change Research in 2007. He is responsible for scientific research at the five global climate change field centres, in the UK, USA, Brazil, China and India, where the relationship between forest management and climate change is being investigated. His doctorate considered the influence of El Nino-related droughts on forest regeneration in Borneo, and he has research experience in reduced-impact silviculture in Canada, sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants in India and Nepal, and the biology of woodland fungi in the UK. His professional interests are the ecology and management of forests, and experimental design and statistics.
Dan also holds a Junior Research Fellowship in Biology at St. Peter's College, Oxford University, where he lectures in ecology and statistics.
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