Campaigns to “save the forests” usually focus on the tropical jungles epitomized by the Amazon basin. There are valid reasons for this: while rainforests take up only about 5% of the Earth’s surface, they store about 25% of its carbon. Their importance is thus far greater than their presence[i].
A full quarter of the world’s forests, however, are temperate forests, found primarily in the Northern Hemisphere between 30°-55° latitude[ii]. The 1.9 billion acres they currently occupy around the globe are also a net-carbon sink[iii], storing approximately 11% of the Earth’s supply[iv].
The history of temperate forests in Europe and America has been one of decimation: due to logging and clearing for both agriculture and home, only 1% of the original forests of Central Europe and only 10% of the forest cover in the U.S. before European settlement[v] remain.
The latest chapter in this ongoing story of the relationship between man and nature has been more hopeful, however, thanks to reforestation efforts. In fact, the net amount of temperate forests is stable right now, with those in Europe and China gaining in cover even as those Australia and North Korea are shrinking[vi]. Abandoned farmland in the U.S. has resulted in our temperate forests’ carbon sink improving by 33% from the 1990s through to the 2000s[vii], particularly on the East Coast.
It’s this combination of greater awareness of the importance of temperate forests to our changing climate and smarter approaches to reforestation and restoration that has led the Drawdown organization[viii] to list temperate forest restoration as the 12th most beneficial strategy to mitigate climate change[ix].
The Future of Temperate Forests: Preservation and Restoration
While it’s always better to preserve existing forest than to restore — a restored forest never fully recovers its original diversity, and it can take years to recover the carbon lost through deforestation[x] — the truth is that most temperate forests are relatively new. Three main strategies for restoring temperate forests have emerged in recent years: functional restoration, assisted migration, and bioengineering[xi]. Each of these methods can be and are often combined to enhance their effectiveness.
Functional restoration is a newer approach to restoration that focuses on repopulating a forest with plant and animal species that will best help it survive its current conditions, rather than reintroducing species that used to live in that space. As the planet warms, temperate forests will likely experience drier conditions, with rainfall falling by as much as 20%[xii]. As a result, 55% of the western U.S.’s current vegetation — to give an example — may no longer survive there by 2100. Functional restoration would approach these lands with the goal of introducing species that can thrive in the drier, hotter future.
Assisted migration provides another solution to changing conditions by uprooting and replanting species to places that will be more hospitable in the future. Our temperate forests simply cannot migrate as quickly as global warming now requires: trees only migrate approximately 500m each year, while climate projections suggest they need to be closer to 3km. As ideal conditions for temperate forests move northward, assisted migration effectively aims to ensure that the forests inhabit those spaces to maximize their health.
Finally, bioengineering creates plants that are more resilient and able to manage the changing climactic conditions in their once temperate zones. Various techniques include preserving species through seed banks and genetic engineering seeds to be more resilient to hotter, drier climates or resistant to pests.
What We Can Do Now to Support Reforestation
With temperate forests, there’s a much more tangible way to help than donating to campaigns like that run by Greenpeace[xiii]. Whenever you need wood or paper products, consider buying from companies certified by the Forest Stewardship Council[xiv] and/or participating in the Global Forest and Trade Network[xv], two organizations founded in the early 1990s and dedicated to sustainable forestry.
We should absolutely save the rainforests — tropical forests are, after all, ranked #5 on Drawdown’s top 100% climate solutions[xvi] — but we shouldn’t neglect the forests in our own backyard. The World Resources Institute (WRI), in fact, believes that 1.4 billion acres globally are good candidates for restoration efforts[xvii], and Drawdown predicts that restoring only 235 million acres can store 22.6 gigatons of CO2 by 2050[xviii]. Temperate forests, too, have a crucial role to play in saving our future.
Related LEED® v4 Credits:
- LEED BD+C, MRc Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Sourcing of Raw Materials (1-2 pts)
[ii] Drawdown, 128.
[vii] Drawdown, 129.
[x] Drawdown, 129.
[xi] https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/olympia/silv/publications/opt/757_Dumroese_etal_2015.pdf. Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this section has been taken from this study.
[xviii] Drawdown, 129.