Credit: Christophe Meneboeuf/Wikimedia
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The world's last remaining pristine forests are under increasing threat, a team of international researchers has found.
Urgent preservation of boreal forests, which grow across large stretches of Russia, Canada and other northern countries, is needed in order to secure biodiversity and prevent the loss of these major global carbon sinks, the scientists have warned.
"Much world attention has focused on the loss and degradation of tropical forests over the past three decades, but now the boreal forest is poised to become the next Amazon," said Australian study co-author Corey Bradshaw, from the University of Adelaide.
Boreal forest comprises about one-third of the world's forested area and one-third of the world's stored carbon. It is dominated by coniferous trees such as spruce, fir, and pine.
To date it has remained largely intact because of the typically sparse human populations in boreal regions. But that is now changing, said Bradshaw's colleague Ian Warkentin, from Memorial University in Canada.
"Historically, fire and insects have driven the natural dynamics of boreal ecosystems," he said. "But with rising demand for resources, human disturbances caused by logging, mining and urban development have increased in these forests during recent years, with extensive forest loss for some regions and others facing heavy fragmentation and exploitation."
Climate change is also contributing to the forests' decline, by increasing the frequency, intensity and possibly the extent of forest fires in the boreal zone.
Only about 40 per cent of forested areas remain completely intact the team reported in their study, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
Russian boreal forest is the most degraded, having suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades, they said, and countries with boreal forest are only protecting less than 10 per cent of it from timber exploitation (with the exception of Sweden, which protects about 20 per cent).
The researchers have urged governments, other scientists and policymakers to take action to implement the changes needed to manage the boreal forest effectively, and for greater protection of unspoiled regions.