Scientists talk on warming's effect on forest

Expert sees challenges for boreal woodlands: fire, insects and diseases

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Climate change provides opportunities as well as challenges, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks vice chancellor for research.

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But when it comes to warming's effect on Alaska's boreal forest, Buck Sharpton said, he sees only challenges: fire, insects and diseases.

"If there's a silver lining in this cloud, I would certainly like to hear it," he said.

Sharpton and other scientists gathered Wednesday at UAF for the start of a four-day international conference on boreal forests.

Terry Chapin, an ecology professor at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology, and the lead investigator at a university research station, said climate change is driving an increase in wildfires, enabling widespread insect outbreaks, and otherwise threatening Alaska forests.

Chapin, the keynote speaker, said it is critical to consider ways to adapt to changes associated with warming and to look for ways to limit changes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Forest disturbances are natural and important, he said. But when fire, insects and disease change radically, plants and animals may not adapt well and communities may not want those changes or be prepared for them, he said.

Temperature increases recorded in Alaska are expected to continue, Chapin said.

Higher temperatures themselves are likely to stress certain tree species, including white spruce, he said. The warming also has contributed to an increase in wildfires and allowed spruce beetles to reproduce faster and cause greater damage.

"It basically changes the rules," he said of the effect on beetles and spruce.

There likely will be a "re-sorting" of vegetation as forests recover from fires in a warmer and drier climate, he said.

Ultimately, he said, land managers could try to shape future forests to reduce the negative effects of wildfires.

About 75 people attended the conference, including scientists from the United States, Canada, Russia and Estonia. Previous conferences have focused on ecological consequences of disturbances and major disturbances such as fires and logging.

Other presenters Wednesday discussed a puzzling decline in overall vegetation in eastern Interior Alaska, the apparent link between climate warming and increased numbers of forest insects, and the connection between spring snow cover and the death of yellow cedar trees in Southeast Alaska.

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