An Aberystwyth University project has published maps tracking the impact of climate change on the world's forests.

The research, carried out on behalf of the European Space Agency, uses satellite data to produce high resolution maps showing which of the planet’s forests are either being lost or expanding.

They illustrate substantive forest loss through tropical deforestation and timber harvesting in the Amazon and central Africa, the impact of recent Australian bushfires, the effect of larch disease in the UK - as well as forest growth in some areas of Siberia.

"Over recent decades, we have seen substantial losses of forest cover globally, leading to the associated release of carbon that is adversely affecting our climate," said Professor Richard Lucas from the Earth Observation Group at Aberystwyth University.

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"We have also been watching the progressive loss of the world’s biodiversity.

"These new maps can tell us where biomass is distributed globally and how it is changing - We need to use this information now to prevent further losses of forest integrity and proactively ensure that they are actively sinking carbon into the future.

“Forests are really only restoring the losses caused by land use change over recent decades and centuries and are playing a lesser role in compensating for overall emissions.

"Achieving net zero emissions from other sources as soon as possible is therefore essential if we are to address our changing climate.”

The National Wales: Around 3 billion are thought to have been killed or harmed during Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires (Picture source: PA Wire)Around 3 billion are thought to have been killed or harmed during Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires (Picture source: PA Wire)

Forests across the globe have been drastically impacted by wildfire, disease and extreme weather events in recent years.

Last year, Greece faced weeks of severe wildfires, with thousands evacuated and international firefighters travelling to the country to assist in the effort.

The fires followed Greece's worst heatwave in decades, which had left its woodlands dry and susceptible to fire.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and the damage to the country's pine forests has left local beekeepers and resin collectors, who harvest the resin for use in everything from pharmaceuticals to paint, fearing that their livelihoods may be lost for generations.

Here in Wales, larch trees infected with Phytpophthora Ramorum are currently being felled in Ynys Mon's Cefni Forest in an attempt to control the disease's spread.

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It's thought that the operation will remove around 1,200 tonnes of trees.

Forests are one of the key natural methods of carbon capture, with trees storing it in their trunks, branches and roots.  

When trees are cleared through the likes of deforestation, or are consumed by wildfires, this can release the captured carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.  This contributes to greenhouse gas concentrations, increasing global warming.  

The National Wales: Climate Change Initiative Biomass map of forest changes (Picture source: Aberystwyth University)Climate Change Initiative Biomass map of forest changes (Picture source: Aberystwyth University)

The new Aberystwyth University research will allow stocks of carbon to be estimated at a global level, as well as their potential contributions to the climate crisis.  

The team’s work was also recently showcased at COP26, where a global pledge was made to end deforestation by 2030.

Heather Kay from Aberystwyth University, who is coordinating the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative Biomass project, commented: “It was heartening to hear ministers and others at COP26 highlight the importance of the Earth Observation work we do here in Aberystwyth.

"There was wide recognition of the mantra that you can only manage what you can measure, and our maps of global above-ground forest biomass provide this sort of information.

"Given the new pledge made at COP26 to halt deforestation by 2030, our datasets can provide key information on whether these targets are being met.”

The researchers’ data can be viewed at the interactive Living Wales Exhibition at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, as well as on the European Space Agency Climate Change Initiative website.  

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