Can you address the need for “Forever Wild” forests in the face of climate change and their importance in sequestering carbon and mitigating the extinction of species?

In the midst of the Anthropocene, human activities—especially human-caused climate change—”have touched every part of the Earth,” Dr. Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist and climate change scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “Nevertheless, we have large expanses of wilderness that still remain relatively unaffected by direct human action.”

The wilderness areas that we do have play a critical role in sequestering carbon. The carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems, in both vegetation and soil, “amounts to three times the amount of carbon that’s in coal and other fossil fuels in the ground,” Gonzalez said.

“The tropical rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo and Southeast Asia contain the largest above ground carbon stocks in the world,” he said. The largest below ground carbon stocks are in the Arctic permafrost.

Scientific field research has shown that primary forests, sometimes called old growth or natural forests, store more carbon than secondary forests, like those that grow after an area is clear cut or burned by wildfire. Not only do primary forests have older, bigger trees, they also have multiple canopies, whereas secondary forests “are usually the same age, and they generally don’t have multiple stories,” Gonzalez said.

Another factor: Even as new trees grow, “it takes time to develop the relationships among the plant, animal and microbial species that maintain forest health,” he said.

Once a forest is cleared, it takes at least 100 years for it to fully recover. Some forests, like Coast Redwoods in California—the most carbon-dense ecosystem on the planet—can take centuries to reconstitute.

Primary forests also have higher biodiversity and serve as critical habitat—an especially important function right now, because under the highest emissions scenario, “climate change threatens to increase extinctions of plants and animals up to five times historical rates,” Gonzalez said. 

—Julia Kane 

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