Science

The forests regulate the temperatures in summer and winter, a paradise for flora and fauna

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Forests give shelter to flora and fauna, providing them with food, shelters … But they also warm the ambient air in winter and cool it in summer, shows a study carried out by around fifty researchers published in the journal Global Change Biology. They present the first accurate mapping of temperatures in European forests, as well as a new machine learning algorithm, a branch of artificial intelligence, capable of predicting temperatures. These two tools allow a better understanding of the functioning of the forest massifs and their protective role of the biological and ecological processes that take place there.

To develop their map, the scientists used the SoilTemp database, through which they collected temperature readings from 1,200 microsensors installed a few centimeters from the ground in a multitude of European forests. “These microsensors record data at regular time intervals, for example every hour. So we have collected, in total, millions of temperature readings ”, specifies Jonathan Lenoir, Ph.D. in forestry sciences, CNRS researcher and co-author of the study. With his team, they then compared the results with those from weather stations near forests, which have the advantage of providing relevant global temperatures, but cannot account for temperatures very locally, such as within forests. Then, they integrated this information into a machine learning model, “fed” with satellite images and many topographic, biological, and macroclimatic variables, such as distance to shore, altitude, and so on. Thus they were able to determine the average monthly difference between the temperature in the forests and that of the outside between 2000 and 2020, but also predict the temperature of the forests according to the temperature announced by the meteorological stations. “Now, when a European weather station gives us a temperature, we can predict that of the nearest forest,” explains the forest scientist.

Protect our forests, protect biodiversity and the climate

The researchers show that, on average, trees cool the air by 2.1 ° C in summer, thanks to the transpiration of plants, which absorb the coldest water from the ground and release it through their leaves, acting as a conditioner. of natural air. Also, in winter, the trees heat the air by an average of 2 ° C thanks to a passive canopy effect, which acts as a blanket that insulates from the cold.

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“Forests mitigate climatic extremes, reducing exposure to global warming and therefore giving species more time to adapt,” explains Jonathan Lenoir. However, the process only works if the canopy is not affected by climate change and this is something that concerns us. Repeated droughts and heat waves, but also more frequent storms, can compromise the protective effect of the canopy, and if the trees no longer fulfill the function of insulating protection (the effect of air conditioning in summer), temperatures will fluctuate greatly and they will affect the forest biodiversity that lives under the canopy of the trees ”. The latter effectively close their stomata, pores that allow them to absorb CO2 and release water, when the temperature gets too high. A reaction that allows them to save themselves during a drought for example … But that only works if the drought does not continue. Otherwise, the tree may die or, at best, weaken, making it more fragile and therefore more prone to disease and more vulnerable to pests.

Therefore, everything possible should be done to protect forests, which, in addition to being CO2 sinks, game reserves and wood, also provide a “little mentioned ecosystem service, but crucial in the current context”, underlines Jonathan Lenoir. One of the solutions would be to review forest management techniques that, although reasoned in Europe, could be improved. “This requires, for example, a more parsimonious management of the extraction of wood, to avoid too abrupt openings of the tree cover”, illustrates the specialist. In other words, make sure the canopy density is always optimal.

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Likewise, the heterogeneity of forests should be favored, avoiding areas of “unique species”, which are much less resistant than forests whose biodiversity is richer. Because, it should probably be remembered, it is not just climate that influences biodiversity, but also biodiversity that influences climate. To protect it, we must also preserve the living. “Forests act on the global climate by absorbing CO2, but also by redistributing water from the soil to the atmosphere and thus participating in cloud formation and therefore in global precipitation regimes. They are not yet known. The interactions are good. The complexes that exist between the atmosphere and the biosphere, but it is clear that trees contribute a lot “, insists the researcher.

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