New research shows Tongass National Forest is natural solution to climate change

The Tongass National Forest is significant in the fight against climate change, according to new research.
Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 9:15 AM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Tongass National Forest is playing a significant role in the fight against climate change, according to new research.

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with Wild Heritage, has been cataloging biodiversity in the world’s rainforests since the early 1990s. He says the Tongass is the most carbon-dense forest on the planet.

“Alaska is ground zero in climate change,” DellaSala said. “I mean you folks have the fastest-changing ecology and climate among the fastest places on the planet. Especially the interior of Alaska, which is experiencing very unusual high temperatures, the melting of the permafrost, the fires that are happening in Alaska.

“Most of that is the result of climate chaos.”

According to Dellasala, the Tongass is absorbing massive amounts of carbon, lessening the impacts of global climate change. This is critical, he says, when it comes to identifying climate change solutions.

“The Tongass is in a very unique situation because you’re on the coast, you’ve got the coastal influences and so you’re more likely to function as a natural climate solution as the rest of Alaska overheats and the rest of the planet overheats,” DellaSala said.

Many things make the Tongass what it is. Included in that are extensive Sitka Spruce and hemlock trees, which can live for hundreds of years. That old growth is locking carbon away for the long term.

“We don’t have that luxury of time any longer, and most of the scientists that have been studying climate change are warning us that we have maybe a decade before things get really severe,” DellaSala stated.

The 16.5 million-acre forest — which makes up about 9% of all national forests in the U.S. — stores about 1/5 of all carbon across the entire national forests system, according to DelaSalla’s research. DelaSalla says in order to maintain this so-called carbon sink, protecting old-growth forest is even more important than planting new forest.

“Those little trees, when you plant them they just take a long time to start up their photosynthesis and start absorbing carbon,” he said. “I mean look at the difference in the size between a 500-year-old Sitka spruce and a newly-planted conifer seedling. That Sitka Spruce is the accumulation of centuries of carbon and that new seedling is going to take centuries to catch up.”

DellaSala has compiled research from all the nation’s forests and says his research will be packaged up and given to the Biden administration as part of an executive order stating that old forests nationwide need to be inventoried.

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