The world's forests - and the billion people who depend on them - are facing devastation from climate change unless we "evolve" with the changing situation, according to a new report.

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) reviewed the scientific literature on the effects of climate change on forests and concluded that it will have a dramatic effect on forests, irrespective of the future rate of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Within the next 100 years, tropical regions are likely to heat up at a faster rate than the global average. Rainfall and summer monsoons will increase in some areas, while annual rainfall will decrease in others; tropical cyclones may become more severe, and droughts, floods and wildfires are likely to be more common, according to the report (pdf format).

Unless immediate adaptive action is taken, says lead author Bruno Locatelli of CIFOR, these changes will lead to a self-perpetuating cycle, where destruction of the forests leads to an increased amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which will in turn cause further climate change, and so on. The report identifies two categories of adaptation.

"The first is to buffer ecosystems against climate-related disturbances like improving fire management to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires or the control of invasive species," he says. "In plantations, we can select species that are better suited to coping with the predicted changes in climate."

"The second would help forests to evolve towards new states better suited to the altered climate," Locatelli says. "In this way we evolve with the changing climate rather than resist it."

Efforts to deal with the problem tend to focus on reducing deforestation, but the report calls for more emphasis on urgent adaptation measures to help the forests and forest communities to cope with the inevitable changes. "In this way we evolve with the changing climate rather than resist it," he says.

Dave Reay, a climate-change researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK, agrees with the recommendations, but points out that mitigation is still key.

"Much more important than climate-change impacts, in terms of the next few decades, is human activity," he says. "It's deforestation and degradation - that's what's going to destroy these huge carbon sinks before climate change has a chance to get at them."


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