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'Wrong Types Of Trees' In Europe Accelerated Climate Change, Researchers Say

Feb 08, 2016 08:09 PM EST
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Forests help mitigate climate change by storing carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. It appears, however, that more than 250 years of forest management in Europe has had the opposite effect. 

"The current assumption is that all forest management and all forests contribute to climate mitigation," Dr. Kim Naudts, a postdoctoral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, said in a statement. "We cannot say that is true, at least for Europe."

Between 1750 and 1850 deforestation removed nearly 75,000 square miles of forest cover in Europe. So, trees were planted -- but not necessarily the right kind. 

In the latest study, researchers reconstructed the land-use history of Europe from 1750 through the present day, revealing that replacing native broadleaved species with fast-growing conifers is a key reason for the negative climate impact.

Unlike native broadleaved trees -- which are usually deciduous trees and have flat leaves, like oaks -- conifer trees, such as Scots pine and Norway spruce, are generally darker and absorb substantial amounts of heat. They are also the preferred species for reforestation projects, as they produce a more commercially valuable type of wood. 

While a 10 percent net gain of forest cover may seem like a good thing, the shift to more commercially valuable tree species has actually accumulated a carbon debt, releasing 3.1 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere since 1750, researchers say. 

"Even well-managed forests today store less carbon than their natural counterparts in 1750," Dr. Naudts told BBC. "Due to the shift to conifer species, there was a warming over Europe of almost 0.12 degrees and that is caused because the conifers are darker and absorb more solar radiation."

To put it in perspective, researchers say that increase in temperature equates to six percent of the global warming attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, forest management can actually lead to far less carbon being stored than would be case if nature were in charge. Researchers suggest conservationists pay close attention to the type of trees planted during reforestation projects. 

Their findings were recently published in the journal Science

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