Mount Halla's fir forest is withering

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Mount Halla's fir forest is withering

Korean firs growing at an altitude of 1,800 meters (5,906 feet) on the Seongpanak Trail on Mount Halla on Jeju Island are dying en masse as seen in August this year. [JO HYUN-WOO]

Korean firs growing at an altitude of 1,800 meters (5,906 feet) on the Seongpanak Trail on Mount Halla on Jeju Island are dying en masse as seen in August this year. [JO HYUN-WOO]

The Korean fir forest on Jeju Island's Mount Halla is the largest in the world.
 
But Korean firs are dying, tangible evidence of global warming.
 
Firs, most famously used as Christmas trees, are an endangered species globally.
 
The Korean fir, Abies koreana E.H. Wilson, is an indigenous evergreen coniferous species native to altitudes above 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), including on Korea’s two tallest peaks, Mount Halla and Mount Jiri. It was recognized internationally in 1920.
 
Korean fir trees in the same place in 2009. [NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF FOREST SCIENCE]

Korean fir trees in the same place in 2009. [NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF FOREST SCIENCE]

When JoongAng Ilbo reporters on Aug. 14 trekked Mount Halla’s Seongpanak Trail as a part of the newspaper’s 55th anniversary series on climate change, the temperature soared to 36.3 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit).  
 
The Hallasan National Park is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site known for its lush ecosystem.
 
After they reached a shelter around 1,500 meters above sea level, reporters could spot the dark green pyramid-shaped trees. They also felt smokiness in the air.
 
A shocking sight awaited the trekkers at an altitude of around 1,700 meters, where there should traditionally be the highest concentration of firs.
 
Trees were collapsed over the trail, roots up, like the site of an explosion. Leaves were fallen and branches were withered.  
 
Some 80 percent of trees at an altitude of 1,700 to 1,800 meters have withered away, according to experts.  
 
Kim Jin, a researcher with the National Institute of Forest Science, who accompanied the reporters, has trekked the trail for 20 years, photographing the fir trees and keeping records.
 
“The fir trees are not rooted deeply, and their roots have a tendency to spread sideways,” said Kim. “Because roots spread to the bottoms of rocks, there have been repeated cases of trees falling over after heavy rainfall or strong winds.”  
 
Just 20 years ago, the fir forest on Mount Halla was lush and green. Starting in the 2000s, as the snowfall level in the wintertime gradually declined, the firs began to show signs of withering.
 
Snow melted earlier, and the firs lacked sufficient moisture in the springtime, having an adverse effect on their growth.
 
The average temperature on Jeju Island has risen 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to 50 years ago, according to the Jeju Regional Meteorological Administration, averaging 16.6 degrees from 2009 to 2018, compared to 15.4 degrees from 1961 to 1970. Likewise, days with snowfall during the same period dropped by half from 12 days to 5.9 days.
 
More frequent typhoons and heavy rainfall in the summertime further battered the already weak firs.
 
According to the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Government’s Hallasan Research Institute, the rate of withering of firs sharply increased from 17.8 percent in 1996 to 47.6 percent in 2014. In the span of a decade between 2006 and 2015, some 112.3 hectares of firs have disappeared.
 
This year, Jeju’s mountains saw 1,000 millimeters (39 inches) of rainfall and have faced a series of powerful typhoons.
 
Kim said, “When I climbed Mount Halla after the most recent typhoon passed, weaker trees had fallen over, roots up.”  
 
Environmental experts are warning that the extinction of Korean firs could bring calamity to the Mount Halla ecosystem.  
 
“It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the acceleration pedal has been pressed toward extinction on Mount Halla within 10 to 20 years,” said Seo Jae-cheol, a standing committee member of the nonprofit environmental group Green Korea. “I worry that the Korean fir will end up being recorded as the first indigenous species to become extinct on the Korean Peninsula due to climate change.” 
 
Kim said, “Goodyeras bloom below forests in the high altitudes of Mount Halla and have a symbiotic relationship [with the firs]. If there are no fir trees, then flowers species like the Goodyera may also become extinct.”
 
BY KANG CHAN-SU, CHUN KWON-PIL, SARAH KIM   [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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