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International Day of Forests: Researching the forest of the future

Gently rolling vineyards, green meadows, farmland and fields. The tranquil borough of Matzen-Raggendorf is known more for its wines than for its vast forests. As is typical for the Pannonian lowlands and hills in the east of Austria, the area is relatively sparse in terms of woodland. And yet a very special forest is growing here, leaf by leaf: The climate-research forest.

Reforestation has been underway here since fall 2019 – and not just with any old trees. A mix of 15 tree species, from the native checker tree via the Norway maple through to the Corsican black pine and the North American Douglas fir, are growing here on a plot partly provided by OMV for the climate-research forest.

What will the climate-fit forest of the future look like? Which species of tree and type of forest will be particularly adept at dealing with global warming and the ever more frequent extreme weather events? The climate-research forest promises key answers.
Silvio Schüler, Head of the Department of Forest Growth and Silviculture at the Austrian Research Centre for Forests (BFW)

Climate change: (Mixed) forests as part of the solution

Apart from the fact that they remove particulate matter from the air, protect us from natural hazards, store water, have a cooling effect, and provide a habitat for countless species of animal and plant life, forests are also seen as part of the solution when it comes to the climate debate: Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bind it as carbon in the wood. This makes forests a natural CO2 store. The problem here? “In the meantime even the largest forest cannot absorb all of the surplus CO2”, says Silvio Schüler, the ‘head forester’ for the climate-research forest. “Woodland in Austria already binds 3.6 million metric tons of CO2; that’s 40 times Austria’s annual carbon-dioxide emissions”.

Added to this is the issue that climate change and global warming are proving a challenge for many native tree species. The trees have to do battle with extreme weather events and drought stress, making them more susceptible to disease or to pests like the notorious bark beetle. “All of this leads to the forest losing its natural ability to take CO2 and store it”, explains Silvio Schüler. And this in turn means that even more CO2 goes back into the atmosphere and exacerbates global warming.

Wild cherry, ponderosa pine, Atlas cedar: Which will edge ahead and put down roots?

Back to the Weinviertel. The region is one of Austria’s driest. This gives us an idea today of what the climate might look like somewhere else 50 years from now. Ideal conditions for discovering which types of tree are good at dealing with the extreme weather events that are expected to occur more frequently – drought, heavy rain, storms.

So what does it look like, the forest of the future? One thing is certain: “Mixed forests of deciduous trees and conifers hold the greatest potential for storing CO2”, says Silvio Schüler. “We’ll know more in around two years. That’s when we’ll see which of the trees we planted in 2019 have successfully established themselves. And then five years after that we’ll see how they differ in terms of growth”.

A forest full of possibilities

The first 1,500 saplings were planted in 2019. In the meantime, there are now more than 10,000 young trees – by 2030 the climate-research forest is set to reach an impressive height of three to five meters. While that is happening, we’ll not only see which tree species are winning the race. With the aid of weather stations and soil moisture sensors, the project team is also investigating how the microclimate changes in the forest over time and what impact the type of tree has on the availability of groundwater – in case drinking water becomes scarce for us humans during longer drought periods. What’s more, Silvio Schüler and his team are interested in which different insects and birds find sustenance and habitat in the different trees. The climate-research forest should also be a site for teaching and learning – and in a few years it should fulfil the motto of this year’s International Day of Forests: Providing a path to recovery and well-being in the sparsely wooded Weinviertel.

Every forest begins with the first tree – we accompanied the major 2019 planting initiative with our camera. And here’s the video:


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