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8.01.06 - Boreal and Alpine Forest Ecosystems


Dmitry Schepaschenko, Austria


Sune Linder, Sweden

Liudmila Mukhortova, Russian Federation

About Unit

The boreal forest is a large and varied ecosystem that spans over 14 million km2 across three continents, providing important ecological services to local, regional, and global populations, as well as being a source of direct economic and social benefits to many. The alpine forest ecosystems are highly diverse and often in closer proximity to human populations.  Changes in climate, increased forest management pressure, and greater demands for preservation of the integrity of both boreal and alpine forest ecosystems require an integrated knowledge of processes that govern their structure and functioning.

The activities of the Unit are directed at developing a coherent body of knowledge on boreal forest and alpine ecosystems that bridges the gap between site and landscape scales, short-term and long-term processes, and theory and practice. in terms of climate, structure and function.

State of Knowledge

Recent progress in forest research has advanced the knowledge of the system in several important domains:

1. Management of boreal forests is called upon to meet increasingly conflicting goals as society demands ever-greater standards of sustainability and ecological integrity while its dependence on forest resources, services or land base is rising to levels never seen in humanity's history. The challenge facing the forest research community is to provide information and tools to minimise risks and optimise benefits, and find solutions for meeting demands of society while preserving this vast natural heritage.

2. Climate change is arguably the most important environmental issue facing the boreal and alpine forests in the twenty-first century. Over the past two decades, the climate change debate and the resulting investment in research on the dynamics of these forests has resulted in significant gains in the understanding of both site-level and landscape-level processes, as well as of forest dynamics over time. Alpine forests in particular have served as „canaries in the coal mine“, as their delicate altitudinal control of climatic suitability is particularly sensitive to climate change.  Mitigation of climate change by managing natural resources to help reduce emissions of CO2 and increase ecosystem carbon stocks, while providing essential products and services, poses new challenges for resource managers. Additional extraction of wood to be used as feedstock of bioenergy poses an ever newer challenge with questions about short-term benefits for climate and long-term sustainability of these practices. At the same time, forest managers must adapt to resources that are changing under the influence of a rapidly changing climate. Balancing the goals of mitigation and adaptation to climate change remains an important research issue.

3. Forest disturbances such as fire and insect epidemics have shaped the boreal forest ecosystem for millennia. In the past the disturbances were viewed as "threats" to the forest, but now are recognised as an essential part of natural ecosystem dynamics. Forest management adds a new disturbance to the forest landscape, and a long lasting imprint that has yet to be fully appreciated. Forest disturbances are major agents of change through which climate change may most dramatically affect forest composition and structure. The strategies for incorporating forest disturbances and their consequences into forest management remain the focus of active research.

4. Biodiversity emerged as a major research theme in the last decades driven by public concern over the loss of species and their habitats in historically developed parts of the boreal and alpine forest regions. Approaches to measuring the impact of management on biodiversity have been developed and measures to alleviate this impact are gaining acceptance, but are still under debate.

5. Integration of new knowledge into the management of boreal and alpine forest ecosystems has progressed significantly. However, the unique role of the boreal zone in the global carbon cycle and of alpine forests as biodiversity refugia, the anticipated impacts of global change, the response to increasing demand for wood products, and the challenge of reconciling traditional and industrial forest use are all topics of broad international and global importance. We expect further advances in boreal and alpine forest research on these issues and will promote the integration of new knowledge.