Forests in China Hammered by Severe Winter Weather

For some years now, we’ve been seeing reports of evidence that
forests will be getting whacked by storms on an increasing and/or
increasingly violent basis. So far as I know, that scenario was
repeated most recently in a December ’07 Annual Reviews article
focused solely on the future of the commercial forest industry. This
latest (northern hemisphere) winter demonstrated how the expected
damage might look.  Below, Science gives a rundown on what happened
in China. Among other things, China’s recent experience puts a
spotlight on the limitations of small reserves — in one case, only
58,000 ha.

Lance Olsen
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“This scale of damage has never happened before.”

“Exotic species were harmed more than native species,” says Ren. In
northern Guangdong Province, plantations of  slash pine (Pinus
elliottii), an import from the southern United States, splintered
under  wet snow …”

“Nanling’s entire forest between 500 meters and 1300 meters in
elevation was wiped out, says He.”

“Nanling Reserve is one of scores ….that took a beating from storms
in late January and early February…”

“In Guangdong, officials estimate that more than 700,000 hectares of
forest and plantations aredamaged severely …. Other provinces
enduring extensive forest damage are Anhui, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei,
Hunan, and Sichuan
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SCIENCE
VOL 319
7 MARCH 2008

Ecologists Report Huge Storm Losses in China’s Forests

GUANGZHOU, CHINA-From delicate orchids
and magnolias to rare Chinese yews and
Kwangtung pines, the flora of Guangdong
Nanling National Nature Reserve is consid-
ered so precious that ecologists call the
reserve “a treasure trove of species.” But win-
ter storms have reduced the biological hot spot to a
splintered ruin. Snow, sleet, and ice laid waste
to 90% of the 58,000- hectare reserve’s forests,
says He Kejun, director of the Guangdong Forestry
Administration in Guangzhou.

Nanling Reserve is one of scores of
fragile ecosystems, from Anhui Province in
the east to Guangdong Province in the south,
that took a beating from storms in late January
and early February that set records for snow-
fall and low temperatures in some areas. Last
week, China’s State Forestry Administration
(SFA) announced that the storms damaged
20.86 million hectares-one-tenth of China’s
forests and plantations-roughly equivalent to
the number of hectares that were reforested
between 2003 and 2006. SFA pegs the losses
at $8 billion. “The severe storms did a massive
amount of harm,” says Li Jianqiang, a plant
taxonomist at Wuhan Botanical Garden. “This
scale of damage has never happened before.”

He Kejun and others say it will take decades
for the hardest-hit ecosystems to recover.
The ecological and economic toll rivals
that of devastating floods along the Yangtze
River in 1998 that inundated 25 million
hectares of farmland. For broadleaf evergreen
forests, “this is bigger than the Yangtze disas-
ter. It’s unique in the history of south
China,” says Ren Hai, an ecologist with
the South China Botanical Garden (SCBG)
in Guangzhou. SFA and other agencies have
dispatched scientists to take stock and formu-
late restoration plans. “The government is
acting very, very fast,” says Ren.

In southeastern China’s worst winter in
5 decades, snow and ice knocked out power
and paralyzed roads and rail lines at the height
of the year’s busiest travel season-the Spring
Festival, when many Chinese return to their
hometowns. The storms pummeled 21 of
33 provinces and regions, claiming 129 lives.

Some 485,000 homes were destroyed and
another 1.6 million damaged,
displacing nearly 1.7 million people, accord-
ing to central government statistics. Agricul-
ture officials estimate that 69 million live-
stock – mostly chickens and ducks – froze to
death. Storm-related losses exceed $21 bil-
lion. As Science went to press, electricity had
still not been restored to some remote areas.
Scenes of scrums at train stations and vehi-
cles adrift on highways were splashed across
the news in China and abroad last month.

Meanwhile, outside the spotlight, an ecologi-
cal calamity was unfolding. In Jiangxi
Province, for example, entire bamboo forests
were reduced to matchsticks; fast-growing
bamboo can regenerate in several years. In
Guangdong, officials estimate that more than
700,000 hectares of forest and plantations are
damaged severely, with losses approaching
$1 billion. Other provinces enduring extensive
forest damage are Anhui, Guangxi, Guizhou,
Hubei, Hunan, and Sichuan

The carnage was not limited to natural
ecosystems. “Exotic species were harmed
more than native species,” says Ren. In north-
ern Guangdong Province, plantations of
slash pine (Pinus elliottii), an import from
the southern United States, splintered under
wet snow, and extensive stands of Australian
gum trees “are almost all going to die,” Ren
predicts. At Wuhan Botanical Garden in
Hubei Province, the roof of a greenhouse
housing Asia’s largest assemblage of aquatic
plants caved in under heavy snow. “A unique
collection has been lost,” says Wuhan
botanist Li Xiaodong.

SCBG scientists maintain long-term
experimental plots at Nanling that will allow
them to gauge ecosystem damage and recov-
ery. At the moment, the picture is bleak.
Nanling’s entire forest between 500 meters
and 1300 meters in elevation was wiped out,
says He. “Before the storm, we could hear
birds singing in the reserve. Now it is mostly
silent,” he says. Many bai xian, or silver
pheasants-Guangdong’s official bird-
succumbed to the severe weather, and
carcasses litter Nanling’s trails, says He. One
worry, he says, is that epidemics will erupt
this spring in the storm-sapped animal popu-
lations and among migratory birds.

With support from Guangdong Province’s
government, SCBG plans to send teams of sci-
entists to several of the most devastated forests
to survey damage and to set up test plots that
will track everything from species compo-
sition to the susceptibility of the degraded
forests to insect pests and fires.
The storm damage lends urgency to a
new national strategy for plant conservation
released last week by SFA, the Chinese
Academy of Sciences, and the State Envi-
ronmental Protection Agency. Under the
manifesto, crafted with help from Botanic
Gardens Conservation International, a
Richmond, U.K., nonprofit, China has
pledged to launch a nationwide survey of
species and habitats, construct a national
herbarium, crack down on illegal logging,
and establish by 2010 a system to monitor
and protect China’s 31,000 plant species,
more than half of which are native.

As damage assessments proceed, SFA has
established a disaster relief technology group
and will hold an emergency meeting later
this month to plan for restoration. Botanical
gardens are doing their part, too. “We must
work hard to save vegetation and lessen the
extent of damage,” says Ren. “We want to
find a way to help natural ecosystems
recover with minimal human disturbance.”
That is a tricky balancing act. At Nan-
ling, managers are barring local residents
from entering to remove downed timber.
Although salvage logging could reduce
wildfire risk, it could exacerbate erosion,
further degrading ecosystems. The bulk of
the restoration work is likely to focus on
economic recovery: rehabilitation of plan-
tations. The storm’s aftermath should also
spur long-term research on plant cold toler-
ance, says Li Jianqiang.

The immediate task is picking up the pieces
after the worst winter in recent memory. “We
cherish our endangered species,” says Li. But
for some of the precious plants at Wuhan
Botanical Garden and in southern China’s
battered reserves, he says, “there is nothing we
can do to save them.” -RICHARD STONE
With reporting by Li Jiao in Beijing.

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