Over the past decades agricultural land in Europe has declined and forest area has expanded considerably. Recent trends of land abandonment have been most pronounced in marginal areas, for example in the mountains, like the Alps and the Carpathians, where agriculture became economically inefficient resulting in a decrease of cropland or grassland area and an increase of forest cover. At the same time, the potential upper tree line was shifting upward as a consequence of global warming.

Studies conducted so far on forest cover change in the Swiss Alps and the Polish Carpathians were either local case studies restricted in their spatial extent, based on forest statistics and not spatially explicit, or looked only at recent changes over the past few decades. Spatially accurate large-scale and long-term reconstructions of forest cover changes are lacking for both mountain regions and the extent, spatial or temporal variation and underlying driving forces of the forest cover change trends are still insufficiently understood.

The proposed project (Forest cover changes in mountainous regions – drivers, trajectories and implications; FORECOM) aims therefore to improve understanding of past, present and future forest cover changes in the Swiss Alps and the Polish Carpathians in the context of land use and climate changes. In the project we plan first to identify trends in forest cover change over the past 150 years for the Polish Carpathians and the Swiss Alps. Then we intend to quantify relative contributions of climate and land use to the past forest cover change and to develop combined climate and land use change scenarios for projecting future forest cover change. Our final goal is to assess important implications of forest cover change: potential impacts on biodiversity and trends in forest carbon pools, adding in this way to the current debates on human drivers of the global climate change.

To reach the project objectives we intend to work extensively with historical maps available both for the Swiss Alps and the Polish Carpathians since the 19th century; additionally, we plan to use aerial photos, high resolution satellite imagery and airborne laser scanning data. Spatially explicit models will be constructed on a basis of available data integrated and processed by means of geographic information systems. An important technology-oriented aspect of the project will be the development of robust methodologies and tools to capture, integrate and process cartographic and earth observation data.

Expected results of the project are long-term and large scale reconstructions of historical forest cover dynamics for the Swiss Alps and the Polish Carpathians, quantification of relative effects of climate and land use change on forest cover change, improved models allowing predictions of forest cover change under various land use / climate change scenarios, and assessments of important consequences of forest cover change.