Korean pines are dying off on Jiri Mountain

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Korean pines are dying off on Jiri Mountain

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Mount Jiri’s Myeong-seon Peak is filled with bare trees. These Korean firs are native to Korea but are dying out due to excessively warm winters and spring droughts. [SUNG SI-YOON]

From a distance, it almost looks like the slopes of Jiri Mountain are covered with telephone poles. That’s because the Korean fir trees there are losing their needles and branches, turning pale and slowly dying as warmer winters and spring droughts are changing the climate these trees need to survive.

Reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo participated in a field study around Mount Jiri, analyzing the massive forest dieback there on Aug. 18 and 19, along with specialists from the Korea Forest Service, its affiliated organization the National Institute of Forest Science and Green Korea United.

“It’s sad that the Korean fir trees are dying out,” said Lim Jong-hwan, head of the Forest and Climate Change Center at the National Institute of Forest Science. “One out of three Korean firs seem to have died.”

The Korean fir, or Abies koreana, which grows at around 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) above sea level, is a strikingly attractive tree with dark green boughs and blueberry-colored cones that grow upright.

“Trees this tall are probably at least 70 to 80 years old,” said Lim, gesturing to a nearby fir. Korean fir trees can reach up to 18 meters (59 feet) in height.

The younger trees did not look much better. As opposed to their usual shiny green needles, these saplings bore patches of dry, red needles.

According to Park Go-eun, a research fellow at the National Institute of Forest Science, a healthy Korean fir keeps its leaves for seven to eight years. But the leaves of the trees on Mount Jiri seemed to be only two to three years old.

Park touched the tree’s heartwood, the core of a tree branch, and said, “The outside of the heartwood is still damp, meaning that the tree died just recently.”

This means that the dieback of Korean fir on Mount Jiri is an ongoing process.

“It seems like the trees died due to climate change,” said Lim, explaining that warmer winters and spring droughts caused by climate change are lethal to the species.

Evergreen trees, including Korean firs, go through physiological activities such as photosynthesis in the winter. But when there’s a drought, this process is hindered. To bear with the drought, the tree closes its stomas, or holes through which it breathes. The tree subsequently weakens, using up its carbohydrates and unable to produce more. The resulting condition is comparable to starvation.

Making matters worse, there are fewer and fewer saplings.

“If there were the same amount of new trees as those dying out,” said Park, “we would be able to maintain the current population. But if that’s not the case, the trees will eventually disappear.”

The Korean fir is already listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Other trees, such as the dwarf stone pine on Mount Seorak (1,708 meters) and the Manchurian fir on Mount Gyebang (1,577 meters), are also in danger. The Korean firs on Mount Halla are in even more serious danger with the lasting impact of Typhoon Maemi in 2003 and Typhoon Bolaven in 2012.

Had the Korean fir grown on the lower parts of mountains, they would be able to survive by being moved to the cooler northern regions. But these trees live on the higher areas, making it nearly impossible to move them further. Also, if other trees like the Mongolian oak start moving up due to global warming, chances are slim that the Korean fir will be able to survive.

To protect the Korean fir, the Korea Forest Service has planted 3,000 of them on Mount Jiri’s Barae Peak since 1999, and has been taking care of them. The field study team visited the area and confirmed that the trees were growing relatively well without much damage.

“We will work to reduce factors that hinder young trees’ growth,” said Shin Won-sup, head of the Korea Forest Service. “We will also prepare measures with the Ministry of Environment and the Korea National Park Service to preserve and restore the trees’ habitat.”

BY SUNG SI-YOON [shon.jihye@joongang.co.kr]

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