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Climate Change on Trees: The Good, the Bad, and the Much Worse

Aug 05, 2014 06:45 PM EDT

Past research has shown that forests will, in some ways, benefit greatly from the anticipated increased levels of carbon dioxide across the globe. However, a new study has found that negative disturbances in forests are on the rise, becoming more common and causing a significant amount of trouble and confusion about these all-important ecosystems.

"Natural disturbances, that is, large pulses of tree mortality from agents such as wildfire, insect outbreaks or strong winds, are integral drivers of forest dynamics and contribute to the diversity and adaptive capacity of ecosystems," European researchers wrote in a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

However, according to co-author Rupert Sedi from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, this natural order of change is going through some changes itself, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

"These disturbances have intensified considerably in recent decades, which increasingly challenges the sustainable management of forest ecosystems," he told BBC News.

The study cites a number of disturbances both driven-by and drivers-of climate change. Forest fires, for one, have been seen more frequently over the past few decades as drought conditions change.

Forest fires are a natural part of the forest life cycle. These fires clear out dried brush and overcrowded and dying trees, giving way for a fresher livelier forest. However, unprecedented drought conditions may be promoting these fires too early and too frequently, leading to lower overall tree cover.

Other studies have also indicated that forest fires in the Northern Hemisphere are helping Greenland's important ice sheet melt faster, with their ash impeding ice and snow's natural reflective properties. That same recent influx of ash has been found to be linked to up to 10 percent of all worldwide mortalities.

And fires aren't even the worst of it. Invasive black beetles in North America have been found to be thriving in the warming climate. These pests devastate forest populations, resulting in fewer trees, and-thus a smaller carbon sink.

"A further increase in disturbance damage in the future might thus pose a major risk for Europe's climate change mitigation efforts," the Nature study warns.

The authors call for an increase in efforts to conserve the world's forest, fearing that forest loss may entirely counteract efforts to slow a harmful rise in greenhouse gases.

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