Nanling Reserve is one of scores of fragile ecosystems, from Anhui Province in the east to Guangdong Province in the south, that took a beating from storms in late January and early February that set records for snow- fall and low temperatures in some areas. Last week, China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) announced that the storms damaged 20.86 million hectares-one-tenth of China’s forests and plantations-roughly equivalent to the number of hectares that were reforested between 2003 and 2006. SFA pegs the losses at $8 billion. "The severe storms did a massive amount of harm," says Li Jianqiang, a plant taxonomist at Wuhan Botanical Garden. "This scale of damage has never happened before."
He Kejun and others say it will take decades for the hardest-hit ecosystems to recover. The ecological and economic toll rivals that of devastating floods along the Yangtze River in 1998 that inundated 25 million hectares of farmland. For broadleaf evergreen forests, "this is bigger than the Yangtze disas- ter. It’s unique in the history of south China," says Ren Hai, an ecologist with the South China Botanical Garden (SCBG) in Guangzhou. SFA and other agencies have dispatched scientists to take stock and formu- late restoration plans. "The government is acting very, very fast," says Ren.
In southeastern China’s worst winter in 5 decades, snow and ice knocked out power and paralyzed roads and rail lines at the height of the year’s busiest travel season-the Spring Festival, when many Chinese return to their hometowns. The storms pummeled 21 of 33 provinces and regions, claiming 129 lives. Some 485,000 homes were destroyed and another 1.6 million damaged, displacing nearly 1.7 million people, accord- ing to central government statistics. Agricul- ture officials estimate that 69 million live- stock-mostly chickens and ducks-froze to death. Storm-related losses exceed $21 bil- lion. As Sciencewent to press, electricity had still not been restored to some remote areas. Scenes of scrums at train stations and vehi- cles adrift on highways were splashed across the news in China and abroad last month.
Meanwhile, outside the spotlight, an ecologi- cal calamity was unfolding. In Jiangxi Province, for example, entire bamboo forests were reduced to matchsticks; fast-growing bamboo can regenerate in several years. In Guangdong, officials estimate that more than 700,000 hectares of forest and plantations are damaged severely, with losses approaching $1 billion. Other provinces enduring extensive forest damage are Anhui, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, and Sichuan
The carnage was not limited to natural ecosystems. "Exotic species were harmed more than native species," says Ren. In north- ern Guangdong Province, plantations of slash pine (Pinus elliottii), an import from the southern United States, splintered under wet snow, and extensive stands of Australian gum trees "are almost all going to die," Ren predicts. At Wuhan Botanical Garden in Hubei Province, the roof of a greenhouse housing Asia’s largest assemblage of aquatic plants caved in under heavy snow. "A unique collection has been lost," says Wuhan botanist Li Xiaodong.
SCBG scientists maintain long-term experimental plots at Nanling that will allow them to gauge ecosystem damage and recov- ery. At the moment, the picture is bleak. Nanling’s entire forest between 500 meters and 1300 meters in elevation was wiped out, says He. "Before the storm, we could hear birds singing in the reserve. Now it is mostly silent," he says. Many bai xian, or silver pheasants-Guangdong’s official bird- succumbed to the severe weather, and carcasses litter Nanling’s trails, says He. One worry, he says, is that epidemics will erupt this spring in the storm-sapped animal popu- lations and among migratory birds.
With support from Guangdong Province’s government, SCBG plans to send teams of sci- entists to several of the most devastated forests to survey damage and to set up test plots that will track everything from species compo- sition to the susceptibility of the degraded forests to insect pests and fires. The storm damage lends urgency to a new national strategy for plant conservation released last week by SFA, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the State Envi- ronmental Protection Agency. Under the manifesto, crafted with help from Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a Richmond, U.K., nonprofit, China has pledged to launch a nationwide survey of species and habitats, construct a national herbarium, crack down on illegal logging, and establish by 2010 a system to monitor and protect China’s 31,000 plant species, more than half of which are native.
As damage assessments proceed, SFA has established a disaster relief technology group and will hold an emergency meeting later this month to plan for restoration. Botanical gardens are doing their part, too. "We must work hard to save vegetation and lessen the extent of damage," says Ren. "We want to find a way to help natural ecosystems recover with minimal human disturbance." That is a tricky balancing act. At Nan- ling, managers are barring local residents from entering to remove downed timber. Although salvage logging could reduce wildfire risk, it could exacerbate erosion, further degrading ecosystems. The bulk of the restoration work is likely to focus on economic recovery: rehabilitation of plan- tations. The storm’s aftermath should also spur long-term research on plant cold toler- ance, says Li Jianqiang.
The immediate task is picking up the pieces after the worst winter in recent memory. "We cherish our endangered species," says Li. But for some of the precious plants at Wuhan Botanical Garden and in southern China’s battered reserves, he says, "there is nothing we can do to save them." -RICHARD STONE With reporting by Li Jiao in Beijing.