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Forests of Central Africa have varying levels of climate sensitivity

Forests in Central Africa are not equally vulnerable to climate change, according to a new study from The Research Institute for Development

Home to the world’s second-largest area of dense tropical rainforest, Central Africa is a biodiversity hotspot. The future of Central African forests is threatened by climate change and human development. 

In order to best protect Africa’s valuable forest ecosystems, experts must gain a better understanding of how sensitive they will be to upcoming changes.

“The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet. It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity,” explained study first author Maxime Réjou-Méchain. 

“This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate (humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall) and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture.”

For their investigation, the researchers worked with forestry consultants and logging companies to compile an inventory dataset of six million trees on over 185,000 plots of land.

The team mapped the0 composition of Central African forests and calculated their vulnerability, while accounting for different climate scenarios and population projections for the end of the century.

The researchers found that some parts of the forest are more sensitive to climate change than others. 

“The forest margins in the north and south of the region, the Atlantic forests and most of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to more than half of Central Africa’s forests, are among the most vulnerable,” said study co-author Professor Bonaventure Sonké.

The data and maps used for the study, which are available online on the Cirad data repository, provide useful information regarding the functional composition of the forests, such as their carbon storage potential.

“The diversity of forest types in Central Africa offers a wide range of potential responses to global changes. It is therefore an essential element to take into account in the framework of sustainable management policies and the fight against climate change,” said study co-author Professor Alfred Ngomanda.

Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury is a forest ecologist at CIRAD and one of the main coordinators of the study. She said the results must now be applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests. 

“In places where human pressure is too great, managers could re-establish these connections through biodiversity restoration programs or the development of agroforestry.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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