Climate change transforms forests -
genomes help trees to adapt

​Due to climate change humankind is facing a situation where preparation and actions are needed. These challenges also concern nature, in Finland and globally. Our forests are already changing as trees and other organisms adapt to changing conditions or spread into new areas. The genome of trees is changing in the process; large spruces originally adapted to a certain type of climate, but the seeds that fell on the snow last winter have slightly different genomes. Through such slow processes, natural selection seeks to ensure that trees adapt to changing conditions as well as possible.

Genomes of trees are being stored in Finland and abroad

The genetic diversity of forest trees is a prerequisite for their adaptation. For this reason, a total of 44 genetic reserve forests have been established around Finland. In these forests, the trees have been renewed naturally or using local seeds and seedlings. The purpose of these actively managed forest areas is to continuously produce new seeds that adapt to changing conditions. Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) is responsible for protecting the genetic resources of forest trees. The institute is carrying out systematic work over the long term, as the results may not actually be needed until a hundred years from now.

Finland is a geographically extensive country that offers opportunities to transfer seed material from the south to the north when climate conditions change. Although transfers are not recommended yet, we may at some point be faced with a situation where seed material is needed from abroad. This issue is already a topical one in southern parts of Europe, where more suitable seed material is being sought from Africa. The transfers do not involve new species. Instead, the intention is to transfer seeds of indigenous species that are better adapted to drought.

On the other hand, the need to preserve original species has been recognised around the world, which is why a seed bank has been established in Svalbard, primarily for crops. Since 2015, seeds from Finnish pines and spruces have also been stored in the permafrost of Svalbard. In addition to preparing for threats, the intention is to monitor genetic changes.

Climate change continues to involve a large number of unresolved issues. How much will temperatures, rainfall and storm winds increase? Will the Gulf Stream be disrupted? What effects will this have? Will species respond differently than we have expected? Will some species increase in number, even though they it has been predicted that they will suffer from the change? Or will the change be short-term, after all?

One thing is certain: nature has the ability to surprise us. Good, sustainable management is the best way to help forest environments, along with maintaining their diversity.

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