Climate Change Threatens Lebanons Storied Ancient Cedars

Can’t stress enough that there are a lot of issues facing Lebanon right now. But on this Independence Day, please consider this story on the impact climate change is having on our country, with some of the worst wildfires ever on record for Lebanon.

Climate Change Threatens Lebanons Storied Ancient Cedars Photo

A cedar tree that burned in a recent wildfire, in the Mishmish forest, Akkar, Lebanon. Sam Tarling for NPR hide caption

Khaled Taleb steps out of his vehicle high on a mountainside in northern Lebanon, and surveys the charred remains of the cedar forest he fought to save. A black carpet of the trees burned needles crunches underfoot.

Armed with only gardening tools and cloth masks, Taleb and four friends spent the night of Aug. 23 on this mountainside battling a wildfire that swept up from the valley and engulfed this high-altitude woodland of cedars and juniper trees.

"The fear we felt for ourselves was nothing compared to the fear we had for the trees," recalls Taleb, who played under these boughs as a child, and who has worked for their protection since he was 16. Now 29, he runs an ecotourism and conservation group he founded called Akkar Trail.

Khaled Taleb, 29, a conservationist who is the director and founder of Akkar Trail, and his brother Ali Taleb, 22, a botanist, look out over a valley from the site of a recent wildfire which burned a number of cedar trees, in the Mishmish forest. Left: A scorched juniper tree that was burned in a recent wildfire which also burned a number of cedar trees. Right: Khaled Taleb Sam Tarling for NPR hide caption

Khaled Taleb, 29, a conservationist who is the director and founder of Akkar Trail, and his brother Ali Taleb, 22, a botanist, look out over a valley from the site of a recent wildfire which burned a number of cedar trees, in the Mishmish forest. Left: A scorched juniper tree that was burned in a recent wildfire which also burned a number of cedar trees. Right: Khaled Taleb

The cedar tree is a source of national pride in Lebanon. Its distinctive silhouette of splayed fronds graces the national flag. The forests here have furthered empires, providing Phoenicians with timber for their merchant shops, and early Egyptians with wood for elaborately carved sarcophogi.

But now the very survival of these ancient giants is in question. Scientists say rising temperatures and worsening drought conditions brought about by climate change are driving wildfires in this Middle Eastern country to ever higher altitudes, encroaching upon the mountains where the cedars grow.

Changing weather patterns in Lebanon, defined by its long Mediterranean coastline and mountain ranges, are also upsetting the ecology of the cedar forests. Warming temperatures have spawned infestations of the web-spinning sawfly, which has decimated entire tracts of forest.

Climate scientists predict average annual temperatures in the Middle East to increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, compared to the mid-1800s. The changes could mean heatwaves lasting some 200 days per year, with temperatures reaching an unbearable 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees C) by the end of the century. The projections show prolonged droughts, air pollution from dust storms, and rising sea levels. In order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the world must keep average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, climate scientists say.

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