Climate change is slowly killing Lebanon's famed cedar trees

Forest fires and changing temperatures have left forests dwindling, experts say

For centuries, Lebanon’s famed Cedar tree sat proudly on the mountains of this small Mediterranean state. It has also adorned the centre of the country’s red and white flag.

It is an enduring symbol of resistance and unity in a country that has endured war and sectarian division.

The historic trees were lifelines for the old world, giving the Phoenicians wood to build their trade ships. The Assyrian and Egyptian empires were also built with the cedar timber. Even in death, the ancient Egyptians used cedar oil for mummification.

The trees are now under threat from climate change and other challenges.

3/19/2009 Barouk, Lebanon

The village of Barouk sits below the Cedar Reserve. Human encroachment and logging over the past 1000 years has played a large part in the shrinking Cedar population in Lebanon, with many trees being cut down by colonial forces to aide in the building of railroad lines in the region.

Warming global temperatures have put in danger the remaining 17 square kilometers of cedar woodland left in the small Mediterranean country. Experts have told The National they expect the area to further decrease.

The change in temperatures is preventing the trees from spreading their seeds, said Dr Magda Bou Dagher of Jozour Loubnan, an NGO working to restore the Lebanese woodland.

“What’s happening at the lower altitudes of the forest is that the temperature isn’t dropping low enough for the pine cone to be able to open up and spread its seeds," Dr Bou Dagher said. "This means the seeds are germinating in their mother, inside the pine cone, and not falling to the ground. So the forest cannot repopulate.”

Climate change is affecting all forests, not just the cedars, she said.

"It’s affecting the insects in the earth, and the birds and the animals that transport seeds – the whole biodiversity is being affected,” she said.

Forest fires have been another plague for the cedar.

In October 2019, more than 100 forest fires ravaged the cedar woodlands. This summer, fires broke out in Lebanon’s north, destroying homes and devastating wildlands – including cedar forests.

While all may seem well, the death of the cedars might not be visible for decades, Dr Bou Dagher said. By then, it will be too late.

“We won’t be able to see the impact tomorrow," she said. "When you look at the forest you can see trees that are still green and in good shape – everything seems fine. In some cases, the leaves dry up, especially if insects are feeding on them.

“But in many cases, there are microscopic changes, that you cannot see with the naked eye. We will only feel the impact after 20 or 30 years and by then it will be too late.”

Updated: September 15th 2021, 3:05 PM
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