State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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African Forests, Threatened, but Resilient

Forests and climate change are fundamentally interrelated.  Forests play a role in mitigating climate change by trapping and storing carbon in their trees.  Currently, the world’s forests and forest soils store more than one trillion tons of carbon – twice the amount in the atmosphere.

The African continent is home to 30% of the world’s rainforests.  Even though this forest area is second largest after the Amazon, much less is know about the interactions between climate, forest, and society in Africa, as compared to the Amazon.  Scientists discussed these issues at an Oxford conference, Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Future of African Rainforest.

The most intact area of forest can be found in the Congo region, as political instability there has preempted deforestation.  Conservation, however, can become problematic with new investment and infrastructure and the ever-growing demand for agricultural land.  Because of the dearth of data from the Congo Basin, scientists are not well equipped to predict how these forests might respond to increasing stresses.

As in other parts of the world, Africa’s forests will need to face the impacts of climate change, as well as the additional strains from deforestation, hunting, logging, and mining.  On the bright side, Africa’s forests might fare best in a changing world.  Africa’s climate has been more variable than that of the Amazon or Southeast Asia over the past 10,000 years.  As compared to the Amazon, African forests have less tree diversity, but the species of trees that exist are resilient.

Africa’s forests were tested particularly over the past 4,000 years.  Due to a drying of the climate and human deforestation, the forests disappeared 2,500 years ago.  1,000 years ago the human population collapsed and the forests regrew.  The species that have returned have broad ranges, are adapted to rapid changes in rainfall, and can recolonize disturbed areas quickly.  After a few battles, Africa’s forests seem to be better suited to adapt to climate change.

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