Introduction to special issue

The Future of Forests

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Science  13 Jun 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5882, pp. 1435
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5882.1435
CREDIT: DLILLC/CORBIS

Forests have had a pervasive influence on the evolution of terrestrial life and continue to provide important feedbacks to the physical environment, notably climate. Today, studies of the world's forests are taking place against a backdrop of unprecedented change, largely resulting either directly or indirectly from human activity. In this special issue, we focus particularly on the future of forests in light of these changes.

Current research on the relationships of forests and climate are considered in a Review by Bonan (p. 1444), which provides an overview of how climate and forests are connected through physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect the carbon cycle, the hydrologic cycle, atmospheric composition, and the flow of solar energy and heat through the Earth system.

In this video presentation, Jerry Franklin, Review author Gordon Bonan, and Perspective author Valerie Kapos discuss the importance of understanding the influence of forests on climate and some of the challenges of global forest governance.

For scientists interested in forest dynamics (the turnover of individual trees and species over time), long-term forest plots are yielding field data on processes that take place over time scales longer than a research career. Until recently, though, the development of predictive models of forest dynamics lagged behind observation. In a Perspective, Purves and Pacala (p. 1452) explain how advances in the mathematics of forest modeling and the ecological understanding of forest communities are generating exciting new possibilities for mapping future trajectories of forests over times from decades to centuries. At longer time scales, pollen and macrofossil records, along with genetic data, have revealed past movements of species as climates changed, which in turn provide pointers to the direction of future change, as discussed by Petit et al. in a Perspective (p. 1450).

Three further Perspectives deal with aspects of sustainable forest management. Miles and Kapos (p. 1454) consider the question of incentives for “avoided deforestation” in the context of the recent Bali conference on climate change; Canadell and Raupach (p. 1456) discuss how carbon sequestration can protect against the effects of climate change; and Chazdon (p. 1458) considers how forests and their ecosystem services can be restored on degraded lands. In another Perspective, Agrawal et al. (p. 1460) spotlight some recent trends in forest governance and ownership, which in effect define the limits and opportunities for sustainability.

The three News reports take a look at how humans have reshaped wooded landscapes across the globe. Stokstad (p. 1436) takes stock of a large-scale assessment of Amazonian biodiversity in regenerating forests and tree farms. Koenig (p. 1439) examines the precariousness of the extensive rainforests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Morell (p. 1442) reports on the success of preservation efforts in China's Hengduan Mountain Region, one of the richest temperate forest ecosystems.

Forests and trees have been intimately bound up with the emergence and cultural development of our own species. Their future, and that of human society, depends ever more on how humans treat them in the coming decades.

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