Forests and adaptation in a nutshell

Published: 22nd February 2012 21:36Last Updated: 22nd September 2015 11:32

The linkages between forests and adaptation are two-fold (Locatelli et al. 2010).

First, as climate change will affect forests, adaptation measures are needed for forests to reduce negative impacts and maintain ecosystem functions (adaptation for forests).

Second, forest ecosystems contribute to the adaptation of people by providing local ecosystem services that reduce the vulnerability of communities and the broader society to climate change (forests for people‘s adaptation).

Adaptation of forest ecosystems

Forests are vulnerable to climate change

Forests around the world are, and will be, affected by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g. drought, insects), and other drivers of change (e.g. land use change) that collectively threaten to undermine ecosystem resilience. Understanding the diverse factors of forest ecosystem vulnerability is crucial to enhancing their resilience and designing effective adaptation strategies.

Forest ecosystems are exposed to different aspects of climate variability and change, as well as other drivers that may exacerbate related impacts.  Their sensitivity refers to the degree to which forests will be affected by a change in climate, either positively or negatively, such as through changes in growth and productivity, species distribution, or disturbance regimes such as fires.  Their vulnerability also depends on adaptive capacity, where there are big concerns that the innate capacity of forests will not be sufficient to enable them to adapt to the unprecedented rates of climatic changes.

Forest fires in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Rini Sulaiman

Aiding the adaptation of forests

Two broad kinds of adaptation measures can be distinguished for forests:  measures that aim to buffer forests from perturbations by increasing their resistance and resilience, and measures that facilitate ecosystem shift or evolution towards a new desired state that meets altered conditions.

Buffering measures can focus on preventing perturbations, such as fire (e.g. managing fuel load) and invasive species (e.g. by preventing their spread or removing them).  They can also include managing the forest actively after a perturbation, by for example, assisting the establishment of adapted and acceptable species.

However, buffering measures might only be effective over a short term, becoming less and less so with accelerating changes and pressures. Furthermore, there are often high costs associated with such measures due to the intensive management that they require. They are likely to be more efficient when applied to high value or high priority conservation forests or to forests with low sensitivity to climate change.

Measures that facilitate ecosystem shift or evolution do not aim to resist changes, but rather to ease and manage natural adaptation processes. Resilience is crucial, not necessarily to keep the ecosystem in the same state after a disturbance, but to help it evolve towards a new state that is socially acceptable. Examples of such measures include the reduction of landscape fragmentation, conserving genetic diversity and a large spectrum of forest types for their value and higher resilience, adopting species and genotypes that are adapted to future climates in forest plantations, planting mixed species and uneven age structure etc.

Strategies that reduce non-climatic pressures are critical and can contribute to both buffering and facilitating measures for adaptation.  Climate change adds to other stressors, such as ecosystem degradation and conversion for other land uses, some of which are currently more pressing than climate change. If non-climatic threats are not addressed, adaptation to climate change becomes purely theoretical. In landscapes where threats to forest sustainability are mostly non-climatic, implementing forest conservation or sustainable forest management is an essential first step for reducing forest vulnerability before any adaptation measures can be implemented.

Sustainable forest management (SFM) can provide an effective framework for addressing forest adaptation in an integrated manner, by including social, economic, and environmental goals.  Adaptation to climate change can be incorporated into the thematic areas of SFM through an adaptive and participatory management approach. Adaptive management will enable stakeholders to face the challenges of complexity and uncertainty.

Forest stakeholders have a central role to play in forest adaptation because they manage forests and depend directly on them and because adaptation must be based on local practices and knowledge, as local people know their environment well.  Institutional changes are needed to allow building adaptation at the local level, for example, increasing local ownership and access to forests, and building institutional responsibility for adaptation.

Forests for the adaptation of people

Forest ecosystem services can help people adapt

Forests can help societies adapt to climate variability and change. Forests provide ecosystem services that contribute to reducing the vulnerability of sectors and people beyond the forestry sector. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, three types of services directly contribute to human well-being: provisioning services (also called ecosystem goods), such as food and fuel; regulating services, such as regulation of water, climate, or erosion; and cultural services, such as recreational, spiritual, or religious services. Supporting services underpin the production of all other services.

Mangroves can protect coastal areas against storms and waves, which are predicted to become even more intensive with climate change and climate-induced sea level rise. Forest products can provide safety nets to local communities when climate variability causes crop failures and urban forests can reduce temperatures during heat waves.

The hydrological ecosystem services of forests (e.g., stormflow regulation, baseflow conservation) are of utmost importance in buffering the impacts of climate change. Forest cover in upper watersheds areas can increase infiltration of rainwater, reduce surface runoff and control soil loss, thus decreasing the destructive impacts of floodwaters. By storing runoff, forests can also act as natural water recharge areas replenishing stream flows which is of immense significance under the threat of increased drought.

Forest ecosystems also play an important role for the adaptation of national economic sectors. The hydroelectric sectors of several Central American countries for example are directly dependent on hydrological forest ecosystem services such as the regulation of water quantity and the reduction in soil erosion and sedimentation.

Conversely, degraded forests and insecure flows of forest ecosystem services can make communities and sectors more vulnerable to climate variability and change and lead to increased adaptation costs.

Examples of ecosystem services and their links to human well-being (Adapted from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). From Pramova E., Locatelli B., Brockhaus M., Fohlmeister S., 2012. Ecosystem services in the National Adaptation Programmes of Action. Climate Policy.

 

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