Forests in a water limited world under climate change
The debate on ecological and climatic benefits of planted forests at the sensitive dry edge of the closed forest belt (i.e. at the ‘xeric limits’) is still unresolved. Forests sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, accumulate biomass, control water erosion and dust storms, reduce river sedimentation, and mitigate small floods. However, planting trees in areas previously dominated by grassland or cropland can dramatically alter the energy and water balances at multiple scales. The forest/grassland transition zone is especially vulnerable to projected drastic temperature and precipitation shifts and growing extremes due to its high ecohydrological sensitivity. We investigated some of the relevant aspects of the ecological and climatic role of forests and potential impacts of climate change at the dryland margins of the temperate-continental zone using case studies from China, the United States and SE Europe (Hungary). We found that, contrary to popular expectations, the effects of forest cover on regional climate might be limited and the influence of forestation on water resources might be negative. Planted forests generally reduce stream flow and lower groundwater table level because of higher water use than previous land cover types. Increased evaporation potential due to global warming and/or extreme drought events is likely to reduce areas that are appropriate for tree growth and forest establishment. Ecologically conscious forest management and forestation planning should be adjusted to the local, projected hydrologic and climatic conditions, and should also consider non-forest alternative land uses.