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Impacts of Climate Change on European

Forests and Options for Adaptation


This essay compiles and summarizes the existing knowledge about observed
and projected impacts of climate change on forests in Europe and reviews
options for forests and forestry to adapt to climate change. Forests are
particularly sensitive to climate change, because the long life-span of trees does
not allow for rapid adaptation to environmental changes. Adaptation measures
for forestry need to be planned well in advance of expected changes in growing
conditions because the forests regenerated today will have to cope with the
future climate conditions of at least several decades, often even more than 100
years.
Climatic changes will bring many and complex effects for forests over different
EU bio-climatic regions. Rising atmospheric CO2
concentration, higher
temperatures, changes in precipitation, flooding, drought duration and
frequency will have significant effects on trees growth. These climatic changes
will also have associated consequences for biotic (frequency and consequences
of pests and diseases outbreaks) and abiotic disturbances (changes in fire
occurrence, changes in wind storm frequency and intensity) with strong
implications for forests ecosystems.
The outcomes of different climate change scenarios showed regional
variability of climate change. The changes in average temperatures that
forests will have to face over the next 100 years range, according to latest
projections, between about 2 C increase in Ireland and the UK up to about 3
increase in central Europe and 4C 5C increase in northern Boreal and parts
of the Mediterranean regions. The warming will be greatest over Eastern Europe
in winter and over western and southern Europe in summer. In northern Europe
the increase in temperature is similar in all seasons. The temperature changes
are coupled with increases in mean annual precipitation in northern Europe and
decreases further south. The expected change in seasonal precipitation varies
substantially from season to season and across regions. The duration of snow
cover is expected to decrease by several weeks for each degree of temperature
increase in the mountainous regions. Climate is expected to become more
variable with greater risk of extreme weather events, such as prolonged
drought, storms and floods. Forests will have to adapt to changes in mean
climate variables but also to increased variability.
Rising temperatures without increase in precipitation or with decreasing rainfall
can lead to drought, especially in the Mediterranean and Continental Temperate
conditions. Fire danger is expected to increase throughout Europe, especially
in the already fire-prone Mediterranean region. Wind throws and storm
damage are most relevant in central Europe, as well as in western and northern

Europe. Changes in the seasonal distribution of precipitation will lead to higher


amounts of rainfall especially during winter and spring, considerably increasing
the risk of flooding in Central and Northern Europe. Climate change affects the
temporal and spatial dynamics of pest species, influencing the frequency,
intensity and consequences of outbreaks as well as their spatial patterns, size
and geographical range. Coevolved relationships between hosts and their pests
probably will be disturbed, hosts will come in contact with novel pathogens and
herbivores, and changes of species composition of communities are to be
expected.
Tree species distributions will change and broadleaved deciduous trees are
expected to migrate northwards. Improved forest productivity particularly in the
North will create opportunities for increased utilization of forest resources.
Forest damage by wind and snow are projected to increase. On the other hand,
increased summer temperatures may benefit predators and parasites and the
vitality status of the host trees, thus partly mitigating insect outbreaks. Higher
winter temperatures will shorten the period with frozen soils and snow cover,
thereby negatively impacting forest management operations.
Temperature is predicted to increase and this will have a positive impact on
forest growth and wood production in northern and western parts (i.e. less
water limited) and a negative impact on southern and eastern parts (i.e. water
limited). In the southern parts of the region droughts are the main constraint of
forest growth and productivity. Extreme events such as storms and floods are
projected to become more frequent particularly in winter. In large areas of
western and central Europe, temperature increase supports the replacement of
natural conifers with deciduous trees. Accelerated development and lowered
mortality rates for various pest species will cause more frequent mass
propagation, e.g. of bark beetles and forest defoliators.
Changing amount of snowfall and duration of snow cover will also affect the
severity of fungal diseases. Reduced stability will decrease the protective
function against natural hazards like flooding, debris flow, landslide, and rock
fall, while hazardous processes itself might be both intensified or alleviated by
the expected climatic changes.
Adaptive capacity has two components: the inherent adaptive capacity of trees
and forest ecosystems and the socioeconomic factors determining the ability to
implement planned adaptation measures.
The inherent adaptive capacity encompasses the evolutionary
mechanisms and processes that permit tree species to adjust to new
environmental conditions. A large body of results stemming from
provenance test shows that tree populations differentiated genetically
during natural environmental changes that occurred during the Holocene.

Examples of individual adaptation via plasticity are suggested by temporal


variation of fitness related traits observed during the lifetime of trees, but
are very seldom documented at this time. Past seed dispersion data
obtained by fossil pollen records suggest that the speed of future natural
dispersion may not be able to keep up with the shift of bioclimatic
envelopes of trees species. However, maintaining or improving the genetic
adaptive capacity of populations and species is important in the long term.
The study shows how these mechanisms that were acting in the past
under natural climate change will contribute in the future to the
adaptation to human-driven climate change.

Socioeconomic factors that determine adaptive capacity to climate


change include economic development, technology and infrastructure,
information, knowledge and skills, institutions, equity and social capital.
The socioeconomic adaptation capacity related to the forest sector has
rarely been analysed in EU up to now. Adaptive capacity is generally higher
in regions with active forest management. Forest ownership structures,
the availability or shortage of forest sector work force, and the
educational level of forest workers are other factors influencing the
adaptive capacity in the forest sector.

The adaptive capacity in the forest sector is relatively large in the Boreal
and the Temperate Oceanic regions. In the Temperate Continental region
adaptive capacity in the forest sector is more strongly affected by socioeconomic constraints. Adaptive capacity is strongly limited in the
Mediterranean region where large forest areas are only extensively managed or
unmanaged.
The assessment of regional vulnerability to climate change including quantified
risks and opportunities requires more investigation and constitutes a clear
research need. So far we can say that improved forest productivity in the Boreal
region will create opportunities for increased utilization of forest resources in the
mid- to longer term. However, reduced availability of timber due to
inaccessibility of forest resources on wet soils outside the frost period will pose a
threat to the industry. Extreme events such as storms, droughts, flooding, and
heat waves are probably the most important threats in Temperate Oceanic
region. Drought risk is an important threat especially under water limited
conditions in Temperate Continental and the Mediterranean regions. The
extreme forest fire risk is the largest threat in the Mediterranean region. There
are specific threats in mountain regions in relation to the maintenance of the
protective function of the forests.
Forest management and planning is becoming more challenging in the
perspective of climate change. New planning and decision support tools are
needed to deal with uncertainty and risk in long-term forest planning. Flexible

adaptive planning, which takes into account all conceivable scenarios and
allows to consider multiple options for future development, may be the best
suited alternative. Effective operative and strategic controlling is getting even
more important and is a key component of adaptive management Cooperation
of scientists, decision makers and stakeholders will lead to a more
comprehensive understanding of the complex problems involved in decision
making and will provide a more realistic and reliable basis for decision support
for management in future forest ecosystems.
The improvement of regional climate change projections, improving
understanding of tree responses and adaptive capacity of the forest sector will
result in new information about likely impacts on EU forests. This information
should be progressively used to improve the resilience of forests to future
climate.