Forest in Distress – Climate History, Climate Change and Consequences of Current Developments on our Forests

Report by Sonja Husemann, Bachelor’s student Theater Studies, and Stefanie Hildmann, Master’s student Chemistry.

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”(Mahatma Gandhi)

“The forest is the hospital of our soul.” (Hubert Maria Dietrich)

“Some people go through the forest seeing nothing else but firewood. ” (Leo Tolstoi)

If we consider these quotes, it becomes clear that poetry and philosophy offer plenty of metaphors to describe the relationship between human and nature. If we want to approach the topic from a scientific point of view, we have to ask what the current state of our forests is. Is there a forest decline, a “Waldsterben 2.0”, and what developments can we expect? To answer these questions, 18 students from 12 different disciplines took part in the Q+ seminar “Forest in Distress”. On the first day of the seminar, these students acquired theoretical basics, and on the second, they hit the trail to the forest.

The seminar was conducted by Dr. Claudia Hartl, Geography, and Dr. Michael Weber, Geoscience, as well as Andreas Wennemann, manager of Rhein-Taunus Nature Park, and three district foresters and interns. During the first session, Dr. Weber gave a talk on climate change from a geoscientific perspective. In addition to a crash course on earth history, which focused on historical climate extremes, we also learned about various dating methods, which can be used for determining the CO2 content of the atmosphere during the distant past. The review of earth history showed that climate has always been changing, but never as quickly as during today’s Anthropocene.

Images such as Snowball-Earth made clear that even a few degrees more or less make a siginificant difference for climate and living conditions on Earth. This overview was followed by Dr. Hartl’s talk on climate history, climate change and its effects on our forests. First we learned about the use of wood core samples and data evaluation in dendrochronology. For example, based on missing tree rings in Norwegian pine forests, it is possible to draw conclusions on the smoke screen deployed around the German WW2 battleship Tirpitz in the 1940s. Afterwards, we learned about climate profiles of different tree species and found that many have not been planted in their natural habitats and are in miserable condition due to hot summers and low rainfall of recent years.

After spending the bus journey immersed in an audio narration that traced the path from the Big Bang to today’s field trip, we arrived at the Kastell Zugmantel and met district forester Matthias Kirchner. In dry, pleasant weather, we looked at an older section of the forest that clearly showed the effects of the hot summers of 2018-19: sparse treetops, fungus infestations, and dead trees. We moved on to a younger section of the forest, to study the forester’s strategies for maintaining a healthy forest that also serves for wood production. Around noon, we proceeded to the active part of the seminar: we planted small silver firs and douglas firs in an area formerly populated by spruce trees, which had to be cut down due to drought and bark beetle infestation. After receiving guidance on how to properly plant saplings, we picked up spades and went to work. In groups of two, we put over 100 young trees, each about three years old and 20cm tall, into the soil and (hopefully) created a small patch of sustainable forest with resilient tree types adapted to drought. Furthermore, two days after the theoretical introduction, we were able to take a wood core sample with Dr. Hartl, putting our fresh knowledge to practical use.

From this forest we traveled on to Heidenrod, enjoying lunch and vivid conversations on the bus. In Heidenrod, we inspected an open area with district foresters Tino Manthey and Volker Diefenbach. They explained why due to a lack of money, saplings, security, and resources, no effort towards reforestation was made in the area, and mother nature was instead left to her own devices. Only in individual enclosures were particular tree types planted on a trial basis. In the remaining area, trees may grow from seeds in the ground or carried on the wind, creating a new forest. In an adjacent beech wood, we were able to look at a rejuvenation strategy, which allows for a younger forest to grow at a lower level, ensuring a resupply of new trees. Finally, we traveled to the wind park Heidenrod and briefly learned about the development and function of wind turbines, before we returned to Mainz at dusk, concluding an eventful fall day.

In conclusion, it became evident that the consequences of climate change on forests are significant, and reforestation alone is not enough. The physical effort of planting trees, which we got to experience ourselves, is the least problem here. Instead, structural and current climate conditions, which our local trees are not adapted to, are responsible for a decline that deserves the moniker “Waldsterben 2.0.” On our next hike through the forest, we will direct our educateds gaze at treetops and tree bark.


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