How Fire-Resistant Trees Might Save Our Landscapes from Climate Change

“Strategically planting cypress trees can save our landscapes from forest fires caused by climate change.” #globalgoals

This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.

Goal 15: Protect terrestrial ecosystems and forests.

In 2012, Spain experienced the worst season of forest fires in several decades, with tens of thousands of acres going up in flames.

Amidst all the destruction, one particular fire in the Andilla region, which burned almost 50,000 acres, presented a curious opportunity for José Moya and his brother Bernabé, both researchers at the University of Valencia’s Department of Monumental Trees.

While other native tree species like oaks, junipers, and pines were decimated by the fire, a clump of 946 Cupressus sempervirens, or Mediterranean cypress trees, stood tall amidst the destruction, more than 98 percent of them left completely unscathed.

The plot was part of the CypFire project, a European Union-funded initiative that has studied how different tree species respond to frosts, droughts, and production of wood and pollen, among other things, for several decades. Though both Moyas had been studying the potential fire-resistant qualities of this species before 2012, the unhappy accident spurred further research that has major implications for how we deal with forest fires in the age of climate change.

“The water content of the cypress is higher than the other Mediterranean species, and it stays constant and permanent throughout the year. The tree also has lower ignitability compared to other species,” José Moya says. “It represents an economic and ecological solution to save the landscape of the Mediterranean and potentially elsewhere.”

As in all regions with a dry-summer, Mediterranean climate—areas that include Southern California; Santiago, Chile; and the Western Cape of South Africa, as well as Spain—these ecosystems are somewhat adapted to naturally occurring forest fires. However, with as many as 90 percent of forest fires in the United States caused by humans and forest vulnerability worsening as a result of climate change, Moya says the need to mitigate the destruction caused by massive fires like the one in 2012 is clear.

The Moyas, along with other researchers, recently published research in the Journal of Environmental Management which further proves that the Mediterranean cypress’ morphological, functional, and ecological traits make it an apt choice for a barrier system in fire-prone areas.

“We envision the trees being planted in strategic areas around population centers, around industrial areas, in the bottom of valleys and at other strategic points in landscapes in coordination with fire officials of a given area to help mitigate the intensity of forest fires,” Moya says.

While more experimental plots are being planted in Spain, Moya says it’s necessary to confirm the adaptability and suitability of the species before planting the trees on a wide scale in a non-native environment such as California. He points out, however, that a major advantage of the species is that it lends itself to a wide application of environments.

“The cypress as a species has a lot of plasticity with respect to the soil and with respect to the altitude,” he says. “They can grow from sea level to more than 2,000 meters high, and they are adapted to different climates and soils including sandy, rocky, and water-logged.”

Researchers are often far removed from advocacy, but Moya sees a direct link between the role of research and improving the land management of forests to decrease man-made fires.

“Normally the situation of the forest fires is due to lack of info available to the public, lack of support of research, lack of plans of the sustainable management of the forest—this is the principal crisis of the situation of the vulnerability of the forest and vegetation, which will get worse due to climate change,” Moya says. “Through research, we hope to get good information to all kinds of people—but especially those who go to the forest on the weekend for fun.”

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

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