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Joint research to ensure sustainable forests
Withering pine trees in Valais, excessive nitrogen input levels and invasive insects are all putting pressure on Switzerland's forests, with researchers from various institutions exploring these challenges. To make the most effective possible use of their know-how and infrastructure, they have now joined forces in a network called the 'SwissForestLab', launched by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).
One third of Switzerland's surface area is covered by forest. For more than 140 years, this has been safeguarded by the country's Forest Act so that the population could use it for wood, recreational purposes and a clean groundwater supply as well as a means of protecting them from natural hazards and preserving biodiversity. Forestry research provides the knowledge bases for this, with Swiss researchers in this field investigating thousands of long-term observation sites, identifying new pathogens or planting young trees in climate chambers with a controlled water balance.
However, there is only so much that individual institutions' short-term projects can do in terms of studying the most pressing challenges posed to forest development by climate change and human interference. That is why, following WSL's recent launch of the SwissForestLab network, forestry researchers are planning to work together even more closely in future and to use existing infrastructure for joint projects and to push ahead with the practical implementation of new findings. "The aim is to advance the understanding of the complexity of forest ecosystems and their sustainable use in a changing environment," explained co-founder and WSL forest ecologist Arthur Gessler at the inauguration symposium on 5 September.
This network is embarking on three initial projects, receiving a total of CHF 615,000 in start-up funding from WSL. These focus on three of the most pressing areas for investigation in forestry research, namely the development of new tree diseases, drawing on the example of ash dieback; improving the accuracy of forecasts of forest growth and therefore the amount of biomass available (for energy production among other purposes); and forests' adaptation to extreme events such as drought, heatwaves and late frost.
Planning major projects
Other projects presented at the symposium could also benefit from the closer relations fostered by the SwissForestLab. To find out whether climate change is actually increasing tree mortality or to what extent trees are suffering from ozone injury, it is worth bundling and analysing the data of as many long-term observation sites and closely examined trees as possible. Broad-based know-how is particularly useful for large-scale projects. WSL researchers, for example, are planning to conduct 30 to 50 years of observations on various test plantations to monitor Swiss forests' response to ongoing climate change. Researchers from the University of Basel are currently setting up a 20-year drought experiment, involving for instance erecting a crane in a tree canopy along with a 2000m2 rain shelter.
Both individual researchers and research groups contributing a specific project and/or infrastructure can join the SwissForestLab. Researchers from not only WSL but also ETH Zurich, the Universities of Zurich, Basel and Bern and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) are involved. Looking ahead, we are anticipating that all of Switzerland's major universities and research institutions looking at tree growth and forest development issues will join them. Conferences, workshops and summer schools are planned to exchange ideas and promote new talent.