How Europe Turned Into a Perfect Landscape for Wildfires

Hillsides scorched last year near La Torre de L’Espanyol in Catalonia, Spain.

Credit…Edu Bayer for The New York Times

TIVISSA, Spain — Forests are getting some high-profile attention lately.

President Trump expressed his support on Tuesday night for a global effort to plant one trillion trees, which itself was announced at a gathering of business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, in January. A trillion trees, it was said at that meeting of the World Economic Forum, would go a long way in addressing climate change.

But while trees — and particularly forests full of trees — are vital for swallowing up and storing carbon, currently absorbing 30 percent of planet-warming carbon dioxide, they are also extremely vulnerable in the age of climate disruptions.

In a hotter, drier, more flammable climate, like here in the Mediterranean region, forests can die slowly from drought or they can go up in flames almost instantly, releasing all the carbon stored in their trunks and branches into the atmosphere.

That raises an increasingly urgent question: How best to manage woodlands in a world that humans have so profoundly altered? “We need to decide what will be the climate-change forest for the future,” is how Kirsten Thonicke, a fire ecologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, framed the challenge.

A forest revival in Europe is forcing that discussion now.

Today roughly 40 percent of the European Union’s landmass is covered by trees, making it one of the most forest-rich regions in the world. It’s also ripe for wildfire.

In 2019, intense heat and drought helped spread fires across roughly 1,300 square miles on the Continent, a swath of scorched land 15 percent bigger than the decade’s annual average, according to preliminary data issued in mid-January by the European Forest Fire Information System.

A firefighting helicopter near Hastveda, Sweden, in April.

Credit…Johan Nilsson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Credit…Jens Buttner/DPA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

Marc Castellnou, a 47-year-old fire analyst with the Catalonian fire services, has seen that shift firsthand here in the hot, dry hills of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, where his family has lived for generations in a medieval village overlooking the Ebro River.

His mother’s family grew almonds up here. The terraces they once hacked into these hard rocks still remain, along with the brick oven of the old farmhouse and a row of juniper trees, which, by local custom, signaled to anyone walking up from the coast that they could barter their fish for bread there.

The almond orchard has long been abandoned. In its place, a scrubby forest of short oaks and white pines has come up. Where goats once grazed, there is now a carpet of dry grass. A perfect landscape for fire.

What happened with his ancestors’ farm has played out across Europe, profoundly altering the countryside over the past half century. As farmers walked away from the land in favor of less backbreaking, more profitable ventures, forests came back.

Now Mr. Castellnou has been setting some of those forests ablaze, getting rid of the grasses and low-lying shrub so the flames can’t as easily race up to the crowns of the young, frail pines. The last thing he wants his two young children to inherit is a hillside strewn with dry, flammable brush.

“Climate change is changing everything,” Mr. Castellnou said. “We’re trying to build some vaccination into the landscape.”

In Europe last year, wildfires raged as far north as Sweden. Drought and beetle infestations killed swaths of forests in Germany, prompting a debate over what trees to plant in their place. Britain had more wildfires last year than ever before on record. Spain saw one of the sharpest increases in the number of individual fires. The European Union described forest fires as “a serious and increasing threat.”

Credit…Edu Bayer for The New York Times
Credit…Edu Bayer for The New York Times 

The forests of Europe have been shaped and reshaped by human hands over centuries. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, then terraced so farmers like Mr. Castellnou’s forebears could plant whatever would fetch the most money.

His ancestors chose a steep hillside and planted almonds. The grandparents of his wife, Rut Domènech, 39, cultivated hazelnuts. Nearly everyone had olives to supply oil for the year. Some grew grapes to make wine. Every bit of hill was under cultivation.

By the second half of the 20th century, Catalonians began abandoning the steepest, hardest-to-farm hillsides in favor of the valleys, where machines and fertilizers made farming easier and more productive.

Mr. Castellnou’s father gave up working on other people’s almond orchards altogether. He helped construct a new highway, then a new nuclear power plant in the next town, then went to work in a factory making wooden picture frames.

With the nuclear plant nearby, locals prospered. Ms. Domènech’s father found construction work. Her mother opened a boutique in the next town.

Farming fell out of favor. The shepherds sold their animals.

Across Europe, between 1950 and 2010, amid rapid postwar reconstruction, woods and grasslands grew by roughly 150,000 square miles.

“I’m really sad my grandmother didn’t want to show me the value of the land,” Ms. Domènech, a researcher at the Forest Sciences Centre of Catalonia, a government backed institution, said as she walked past one of the many abandoned stone farmhouses.

It’s as though, she added, they weren’t proud of who they were.

Wispy white pines took over the hillsides, crammed tightly next to each other. Grasses grew tall.

As Catalonians migrated to cities, the fingerprints of climate change also emerged. Heat records were broken, one after another. The grass turned dry. The white pines began to drop their needles.

Credit…Edu Bayer for The New York Times
Credit…Jose Jordan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Farmers in the Montsant wine region of Catalonia now harvest earlier in the season; the heat sweetens the grapes too early, leading to higher alcohol content, and some worry whether they’ll have to switch to dessert wines.

On an exceptionally hot day last summer, on a poultry farm, a pile of manure caught fire, as mounds of animal waste have done before. But so fierce was the wind that the embers traveled across the hills, causing fires up to 13 miles away.

Fire, Mr. Castellnou pointed out more than once, is nature’s way of reshaping the landscape for the future. What will come up on these denuded hills will be less homogeneous, he said, and more resilient for a new climate.

He favors what he calls managed burns, getting rid of low brush in order to prevent the next fire from raging out of control. And sometimes, he favors letting fires burn. It’s part of the natural ecology of the forest, he said. The white pines, for instance, reproduce only during fires, when their seed pods explode in the heat.

“Instead of fighting fire, making peace with fire,” Mr. Castellnou advised.

The only way to keep the woods from becoming dry brush by the time his two children are grown, he said, is to manage the landscape. He can see what climate change has already wrought on the hills he has lived in his whole life. The seasons are unpredictable. The heat and high winds are like nothing he has seen before.

“You can’t read the signals anymore,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s like feeling estranged at home.”

SOURCE

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Imagine Two Different Futures

As conscious beings, humans have a unique power of imagination. From epic novels to ingenious inventions, the human mind can imagine amazing things. With elections around the corner, it’s time we put that imagination to use to envision the future we want for not only our country, but for our world.

So, let’s imagine two different futures – one with trees and one without. In the first, we have clean air and water, the concentration of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere is lower, flooding is less severe, wildlife have homes to live in, our countryside is an iconic beauty worthy of post cards, the tourism industry thrives and the planet is a better place for all.

In the second future, the earth is an uninhabitable wasteland where there’s no clean air or water, living beings have no support system and the earth continues to warm because one of the key carbon sequestration tools has been destroyed.

What future do you want to live in? It’s a pretty easy answer, isn’t it? And yet we continue on a path that is directing us toward the second future. Rather than protecting forests and leveraging trees as one of the most vital tools at our disposal in the fight against climate change, we continue to tear our forests down in the name of economic growth and consumption. It’s time to change our trajectory.

Imagine the future you want – not just for yourself but for all the living beings on this earth – and vote with that image in mind. Let’s protect our planet and our trees. Let’s show our support for clean air and water. Let’s build that future we all imagine. SOURCE

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Why we’ve had enough of broken promises to protect forests

Environmentalists call for Carbon Capture and Storage – with forests

Amazonian rainforest
CC BY 2.0 Amazonian rainforest/ Lloyd Alter

Greta Thunberg, Margaret Atwood, Michael Mann, Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot and more make the case.

We go on about wood here on TreeHugger, but often fail to see the forest for the trees. In fact, those forests could save us, by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere faster than we are making it. Instead, we are chopping them down and, in many parts of the world, failing to replant them. Every thing we say about the wonders of wood construction are meaningless if we don’t replace every tree we turn into CLT and NLT and DLT and every other form of wood we invent.

Writing in the Guardian, a long list of environmental luminaries, from Greta Thunberg to Brian Eno, have written an important letter calling for protecting and restoring ecosystems.

By defending, restoring and re-establishing forests, peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes, natural seabeds and other crucial ecosystems, large amounts of carbon can be removed from the air and stored. At the same time, the protection and restoration of these ecosystems can help minimise a sixth great extinction, while enhancing local people’s resilience against climate disaster. Defending the living world and defending the climate are, in many cases, one and the same. This potential has so far been largely overlooked.

The writers note that this can’t be a substitute for decarbonization of industrial economies, but note that “natural climate solutions could help us hold the heating of the planet below.”Drax carbon capture and storageDrax carbon capture and storage/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

MORE

Biodiversity is more than just the forests

Image result for forests biodiversity

Forest. Credit: © Pakhnyushchyy / Fotolia

TOO often when we talk about biodiversity, it evokes a notion of forest destruction or species extinction. To many, it is just about the environment. Little do we realise, however, that in fact biodiversity is the foundation for human health. It underpins the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend for our food and fresh water. It contributes to local livelihoods, to traditional and modern medicines, and to economic development. It aids in regulating climate, floods and disease. It provides recreational benefits, and aesthetic and spiritual enrichment, supporting mental health.

The World Health Organisation offers an insightful analysis of the link between health and biodiversity, beginning with a definition of a healthy person as someone not simply free from illness but in a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing.

Knowledge of plant and animal diversity provides major benefits, including drugs. When we lose diversity, we limit our future discovery of potential treatments for our health problems. Traditional medicines are used by an estimated 60 per cent of the world’s people. And in some countries they are incorporated into the public health system extensively. Medicinal plants are the most common element of traditional medicine, collected from the wild or cultivated. MORE

GOLDSTEIN: How Canada is ‘faking it’ on climate change


The steel mills on the Hamilton waterfront harbour are shown in Hamilton, Ont., on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. Canada’s push to be a world leader in the fight against climate change may be hampered by its distinction for producing the most greenhouse gas emissions per person among the world’s 20 largest economies. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has come up with a new way to meet Canada’s greenhouse gas emission targets under the Paris climate accord.

Except it doesn’t reduce emissions. It’s an accounting trick.

Since there’s no way we can meet our looming target for 2030 that Trudeau agreed to when he signed the 2015 Paris climate deal — lowering Canada’s emissions to 30% below 2005 levels — the Liberals have started moving the goalposts closer to the target.

But it has nothing to do with what we’ve been told is the real problem — industrial emissions from man-made activities when burning fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) for energy.

Canada’s emissions in 2016 were 704 megatonnes, the last year for which figures are available, while Trudeau’s commitment under the Paris deal for 2030 works out to 512 megatonnes annually, or 192 megatonnes less. MORE

John Horgan announces policy reforms to rebuild coastal forest sector

BC Premier John HorganPremier John Horgan says his government plans to rebuild the solid wood and secondary timber industries by ensuring more logs are processed in British Columbia.

Plans are in the works to rebuild the wood and secondary timber industries in British Columbia by ensuring more logs are processed in the province, said Premier John Horgan.

The forest sector revitalization plan will be done through incentives and regulation changes, he said in a speech at the annual Truck Loggers Convention on Thursday.

The policy changes include increasing penalties for late reporting of wood waste, and reducing the waste by redirecting it to pulp and paper mills.

The actions will reverse a systematic decline that has taken place in the coastal forest sector over the past two decades, he said, adding the plan will be implemented through a series of legislative, regulatory and policy changes over the next two years.

More timber can be processed here in B.C. and to accomplish that the government will reform raw log export policy, discourage high grading and curtail the export of minimally processed lumber, he said. MORE

The Best Technology for Fighting Climate Change Isn’t a Technology

Forests are the most powerful and efficient carbon-capture system on the planet

The Best Technology for Fighting Climate Change Isn't a Technology
A forest planted on an abandoned open-pit coal mine, Germany. Credit: Hans Blossey Getty Images 

So far, advocates and politicians have tended to focus on reducing fossil fuel consumption through technology and/or policy, such as a steep carbon tax, as climate solutions. These proposals are, of course, essential to reducing manmade carbon emissions—71 percent of which are generated by just 100 fossil fuel companies. For this reason, fossil-fuel–related emissions reductions rightly figure heavily in the national climate commitments of the 181 nations that signed the global Paris Agreement.

Yet the international focus on fossil fuels has overshadowed the most powerful and cost-efficient carbon-capture technology the world has yet seen: forests. Recent scientific research confirms that forests and other “natural climate solutions” are absolutely essential in mitigating climate change, thanks to their carbon sequestering and storage capabilities. In fact, natural climate solutions can help us achieve 37 percent of our climate target, even though they currently receive only 2.5 percent of public climate financing.

Forests’ power to store carbon dioxide through the simple process of tree growth is staggering: one tree can store an average of about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in one yearRecent research shows intact forests are capable of storing the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions of entire countries such as Peru and Colombia. MORE

To curb climate change, we have to suck carbon from the sky. But how?

Once considered a distraction, scientists now say using technology—and nature—to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is not only possible: It’s a must.

Radish cover crop traps nitrogen; mystery follows

The long radish root creates deep channels in the soil that can make it easier for subsequent  to reach water in the soil below.

At McCarty Family Farms, headquartered in sun-blasted northwest Kansas, fields rarely sit empty any more. In a drive to be more sustainable, the family dairy still grows corn, sorghum, and alfalfa, but now often sows the bare ground between harvests with wheat and daikon. The wheat gets fed to livestock. The radishes, with their penetrating roots, break up the hard-packed surface and then, instead of being harvested, are allowed to die and enrich the soil.

Like all plants, cereal grains and root vegetables feed on carbon dioxide. In 2017, according to a third-party auditplanting cover crops on land that once sat empty helped the McCarty farms in Kansas and Nebraska pull 6,922 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil across some 12,300 acres—as much as could have been stored by 7,300 acres of forest. Put another way: The farm soil had sucked up the emissions of more than 1,300 cars.

Moves like this are among a host of often overlooked steps that scientists now say are crucial to limiting the worst impacts of climate change. MORE

Once derided, ways of adapting to climate change are gaining steam

Recognition is spreading that communities need to build resilience to climatic and coastal threats even as the world seeks ways to curb emissions driving global warming.

Image result for climate destruction coastal communities
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy debris and destruction can be seen in and around the houses in Breezy Point, N.Y. Over 100 houses burned to the ground as flood waters isolated the community from fireman.

Signs are emerging that a significant shift is under way, dividing the climate challenge into two related, but distinct, priorities: working to curb greenhouse gases to limit odds of worst-case outcomes later this century while boosting resilience to current and anticipated climatic and coastal hazards with just as much fervor. There’s action from the top down, and—perhaps more significant in the long run—from the bottom up.

The most prominent signs of the rising profile of adaptation came with the launch in October of a Global Commission on Adaptation and a December commitment of $200 billion in climate finance over five years by the World Bank and partners. MORE