More than 25 million timber-producing forests, an area equal in size to Great Britain, have been lost to climate-induced fires over the last 20 years. And the threat of timber milling and paper manufacturing is far greater than most people realise.
That is according to new research published in Natural Geoscience, which, for the first time, has revealed the extent of damage caused by climate-induced fire on global forests and its impact on timber supply.
It claims that harvesting or logging in forests could make timber-producing forests more flammable and that forests subject to thinning “could be at risk of high-severity forest fires.”
“High-severity, stand-replacing wildfires represent a large threat to timber stocks within forests managed for wood production,” the study claims, “and the increasing frequency of such wildfires in the twenty-first century is a serious concern.”
It comes as global demand for forest products is surging, with the World Bank projecting demand for timber will quadruple over the next 30 years – ensuring that timber supply meets future demand is regarded as one of the critical challenges for the twenty-first century.
And whilst the UN has recognised that forest-based products like timber, bamboo, and biomass are the solution to a net-zero future, the new research calls on producers to embrace new management strategies and technologies to combat the fire threat.
According to co-authors David Lindenmayer from the Australian National University and Christopher Bousfield and David Edwards from the University of Cambridge, more than “one-third of the world’s forests are cut for timber.”
To conduct a global assessment of wildfire threat to timber production, the researchers used spatial data to detail the global extent of forestry practices, with annual layers of forest loss due to fires.
“We answered two key questions,” the co-authors said, starting with “how much timber-producing forest is being lost to stand-replacing fires globally, and where do these losses occur?”
Followed by “the temporal trends in the annual burned area of timber-producing forests since the turn of the century at global, regional and national scales?”
They claim that the most extensive burning occurs in the west of the US and Canada, Siberian Russia, Brazil and Australia, with the extent of fire jumping from an average of less than one million hectares up to 2015 to more than triple since.
“At a national scale, Russia, the US and Canada were the three countries with the largest absolute wildfire-induced losses of timber-producing forest,” they said.
“But when it comes to the proportion of their forestry land lost, the nations with the highest percentages burnt were Portugal, followed by Australia.”
One way to tackle the problem, as outlined in an article by the co-authors in today’s Conversation, “is to grow more timber in plantations. Plantations already produce a third of the primary forms of wood-producing timber – called industrial roundwood.”
In recent months, global governments have come under scrutiny for under-investment in plantation establishment to meet long-term timber supply – including Australia, New Zealand and the UK, where the Australian estate now stands at a 20-year low and “a failed generation of policymaking has led to a decline in wood production in England.”
“They do this from just 3% of the area of natural forests,” the co-authors said before suggesting that “well-managed plantations can grow a successful timber crop within a couple of decades.”
“This is a lot shorter than the many decades and sometimes even centuries required to grow sawlogs in native forests,” with “shorter growing time in plantations increases the chances of harvesting trees before they are destroyed in a wildfire.”
However, the co-authors acknowledge that plantations, like some logged and regenerated native forests, can be highly flammable.
“Fire risks need to be carefully managed. That includes planning to avoid putting neighbouring areas and human communities at greater risk of being burnt.”
Another key strategy to better protect timber resources will be to adopt new technologies to detect and suppress ignitions such as those originating from lightning strikes more quickly.
“Big fires start as small fires. The best time to suppress fires is when they are small and as soon as ignition occurs,” the co-authors said.
“We have been involved in developing drone fleets and unmanned aerial water and fire suppressant dispensing craft to detect and extinguish wildfires more quickly.”
New technologies, as well as better-planned and managed plantations, will be crucial in protecting forests and safeguarding the flow of marketable timber and the industries dependent upon them.