Found: ‘lost’ forests covering an area two-thirds the size of Australia


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A coolabah forest in Western Australia – one of the world’s previously unrecognised dryland forests.
TERN Ausplots, Author provided

Andrew Lowe, University of Adelaide and Ben Sparrow, University of Adelaide

A new global analysis of the distribution of forests and woodlands has “found” 467 million hectares of previously unreported forest – an area equivalent to 60% of the size of Australia. The Conversation

The discovery increases the known amount of global forest cover by around 9%, and will significantly boost estimates of how much carbon is stored in plants worldwide.

The new forests were found by surveying “drylands” – so called because they receive much less water in precipitation than they lose through evaporation and plant transpiration. As we and our colleagues report today in the journal Science, these drylands contain 45% more forest than has been found in previous surveys.

We found new dryland forest on all inhabited continents, but mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, around the Mediterranean, central India, coastal Australia, western South America, northeastern Brazil, northern Colombia and Venezuela, and northern parts of the boreal forests in Canada and Russia. In Africa, our study has doubled the amount of known dryland forest.

The world’s drylands: forested areas shown in green; non-forested areas in yellow.
Bastin et al., Science (2017)

With current satellite imagery and mapping techniques, it might seem amazing that these forests have stayed hidden in plain sight for so long. But this type of forest was previously difficult to measure globally, because of the relatively low density of trees.

What’s more, previous surveys were based on older, low-resolution satellite images that did not include ground validation. In contrast, our study used higher-resolution satellite imagery available through Google Earth Engine – including images of more than 210,000 dryland sites – and used a simple visual interpretation of tree number and density. A sample of these sites were compared with field information to assess accuracy.

Unique opportunity

Given that drylands – which make up about 40% of Earth’s land surface – have more capacity to support trees and forest than we previously realised, we have a unique chance to combat climate change by conserving these previously unappreciated forests.

Drylands contain some of the most threatened, yet disregarded, ecosystems, many of which face pressure from climate change and human activity. Climate change will cause many of these regions to become hotter and even drier, while human expansion could degrade these landscapes yet further. Climate models suggest that dryland biomes could expand by 11-23% by the end of the this century, meaning they could cover more than half of Earth’s land surface.

Considering the potential of dryland forests to stave off desertification and to fight climate change by storing carbon, it will be crucial to keep monitoring the health of these forests, now that we know they are there.

Ground-based observations were a crucial part of the survey.
TERN AusPlots, Author provided

Climate policy boost

The discovery will dramatically improve the accuracy of models used to calculate how much carbon is stored in Earth’s landscapes. This in turn will help calculate the carbon budgets by which countries can measure their progress towards the targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol and its successor, the Paris Agreement.

Our study increases the estimates of total global forest carbon stocks by anywhere between 15 gigatonnes and 158 gigatonnes of carbon – an increase of between 2% and 20%.

This study provides more accurate baseline information on the current status of carbon sinks, on which future carbon and climate modelling can be based. This will reduce errors for modelling of dryland regions worldwide. Our discovery also highlights the importance of conservation and forest growth in these areas.


The authors acknowledge the input of Jean-François Bastin and Mark Grant in the writing of this article. The research was carried out by researchers from 14 organisations around the world, as part of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Forest Survey.

Andrew Lowe, Professor of Plant Conservation Biology, University of Adelaide and Ben Sparrow, Associate professor and Director – TERN AusPlots and Eco-informatics, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The 2017 budget has axed research to help Australia adapt to climate change


Tayanah O’Donnell, University of Canberra and Josephine Mummery, University of Canberra

The 2017 federal budget has axed funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), an agency that provides information to decision-makers on how best to manage the risks of climate change and sea level rise. The Conversation

The NCCARF received A$50 million in 2008 to coordinate Australia’s national research effort into climate adaptation measures. That was reduced in 2014 to just under A$9 million. For 2017-18, a mere A$600,000 will be spread between CSIRO and NCCARF to support existing online platforms only. From 2018, funding is axed entirely.

This decision follows on from the 2014 streamlining of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, and comes at a time when a national review of Australia’s climate policies is still underway.

Despite a growing global impetus to address the risks of climate change, there is evidence that Australia is being hampered by policy inertia. A review of 79 submissions to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation, published in 2014, found that:

adaptation first and foremost requires clear governance, and appropriate policy and legislation to implement change.

Earlier this year the World Economic Forum listed “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as one of the top five risks to the world, in terms of its potential impact. Meanwhile, in Australia, local governments, professionals and community groups have consistently called for more national policy guidance on how best to adapt to climate risks.

The government’s decision to slash funding for climate adaptation research is therefore at odds with the growing urgency of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent major assessment report, pointed out that Australia can benefit significantly from taking adaptation action in highly vulnerable sectors.

These areas of vulnerability include: the risk of more frequent and intense floods; water shortages in southern regions; deaths and infrastructure damage caused by heatwaves; bushfires; and impacts on low-lying coastal communities.

To put it simply, lives and money will be saved by strong climate adaptation measures.

Australia needs a coherent policy approach that goes beyond the current focus on energy policy, although climate adaptation is indeed an important issue for our electricity grid as well as for many other elements of our infrastructure. A coherent, whole-of-government, approach to climate risk is the economical and sensible approach in the long term.

Like it or not, the federal government has to take a leading role in climate adaptation. This includes the ongoing need to address existing knowledge gaps through well-funded research.

The federal government is the major funder of leading research in Australia, delivered through CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Cooperative Reserach Centres, the Australian Research Council and universities. This role should not be divested. Without climate adaptation research, Australia can expect significantly higher infrastructure damage and repair costs, more death and disease, and more frequent disruption to services – much of which would be avoidable with the right knowledge and preparation.

The damage bill from the 2010-11 Queensland floods alone exceeded A$6 billion. Since 2009, natural disasters have cost the Australian government more than A$12 billion, and the private sector has begun trying in earnest to reduce its risk exposure.

In response to these known risks, there is demand for robust policy guidance. Effective partnerships between government, industry and the community are crucial. One such example led by the NCCARF is CoastAdapt, an online tool that collates details of climate risks and potential costs in coastal areas.

For projects like this, success hinges on full engagement with all relevant spheres of government, industry, research, and the community. There is more to be done, and it needs leadership at the highest level.

Tayanah O’Donnell, Research Fellow, University of Canberra and Josephine Mummery, Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, climate change policy, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.