People often point to the benefits for the Swedish forestry industry from a warming climate: increased growth and the forests’ capacity to sequester carbon dioxide. But the forest fires in Västmanland constitute  a clear illustration of the complexity and uncertainty with regard to climate impacts on forestry. The devastating fire was the biggest to hit Sweden in modern times, and according to insurance industry estimates caused damage worth around 875 million Swedish kronor.

Moreover, in recent years the Swedish forestry industry has been afflicted by a number of extreme weather events. Cyclones Gudrun and Per served as alarm calls when it came to the forestry industry’s vulnerability to anticipated climate change.

The forest fire in Västmanland was yet another wake-up call. Certainly, it is difficult to draw a direct link between individual extreme weather events and climate change with certainty, but current research clearly shows that climate change will increase the risk that these events will be more frequent and more powerful. As far back as 2007 the Swedish Forest Agency (Skogsstyrelsen) could state, in its report ‘Svenskt skogsbruk möter klimatförändringar’ (Swedish forestry meets climate change) that a warmer climate brings with it a higher risk of forest fires. In the same year the Swedish Commission on Climate and Vulnerability (Klimat- och sårbarhetsutredningen) established that the frequency of forest fires would steadily increase with a changing climate. That message has been backed up by numerous reports from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap).

Under the framework of the Mistra-SWECIA research programme, Stockholm Environment Institute carried out a major survey study among forest owners and professionals in the forestry sector, during Spring 2014. The study showed that overall there is a nascent preparedness to adapt the forestry sector to climate change. Many have started to think about climate risks such as storms and insect and fungal attacks. At the same time, the new study showed that forests fires and droughts are not seen as significant risk factors among the forest owners surveyed. The survey took place before the forest fires in Västmanland.

One of the biggest challenges today is to disseminate and use the available knowledge about climate risks and adaptation actions better than we do now. Uncertainty about the implications of the future climate for the forest business also creates uncertainty about what actions are needed for successful climate adaptation. The Stockholm Environment Institute’s survey shows that there is a big interest among Swedish forest owners in learning how they can adapt. 36% percent of those questioned had already noticed changes in weather patterns and climatic conditions in their forests and 28 percent think they should be taking more notice of climate change in their forestry.

To successfully handle the increased risks it is crucial that the responsibility for climate change adaptation is not all left on the shoulders of individual forest owners. Climate change adaptation in the Swedish forestry sector clearly requires stronger cooperation between researchers, authorities, forest businesses and forest owners than we see today. This issue should be a high priority for the new government, given forests’ great economic, social and ecological value. An important step forward would be to establish a cooperative mechanism for the relevant parties, preferably with the Swedish Forest Agency as the convenor. The aim should be to increase knowledge, stimulate cooperation and prepare recommendations for an adaptation strategy for the Swedish forestry sector in a changing climate.

This is a translation of an article that originally appeared in Swedish in Skogsaktuellt on 25 September 2014, under the title ‘Klimatanpassning högaktuellt inom svenskt skogsbruk‘.