Lebanon’s majestic cedar trees have withstood the test of time for centuries but climate change is threatening the country’s most treasured symbol.
Used by various civilizations throughout history for their strong wood, Lebanon’s cedars are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List” as a “heavily threatened” species.
Experts and environmentalists warn that global warming could have a negative impact on the cedars.
“Enough talking about the need to preserve the cedars, it’s time for action. We must preserve the trees now,” said Nizar Hani, scientific coordinator of the al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve in the mountainous Shouf area southeast of Beirut.
Lebanon’s largest reserve, where 25 percent of the country’s 2,000 hectares of cedar trees are located, was established in 1996, stretching from Dahr al-Baidar in the north to Niha Mountain in the south.
Some of the reserve’s cedar trees, which belong to the pine family and have needle-like leaves bearing seeds in scaled clusters, are estimated to be 2,000 years old.
“The melting of snow on mountains as a result of climate change would lead to the disappearance of the cedars in Lebanon,” said Wael Hmaidan, executive director of the League of Independent Activists, or IndyAct, a non-governmental organization that focuses on the environment.
Snow is a must for the tall evergreen cedars, which have a natural range of 1,200m to 1,800m above sea level.
“If there is no combination of rain, snow and frost for several consecutive days, the seeds of the cedar won’t be disseminated. We also need cold treatment for the seeds to be able to germinate,” said Fady Asmar, an expert in Mediterranean forests.
Lebanon’s cedars were heavily deforested for thousands of years and the remaining trees are now kept in protected areas.
It is said the Phoenicians used cedars for building trade and military ships, as well as houses and temples, while their resin was key to the ancient Egyptians for mummification.
It is also believed that King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was built from Lebanon’s cedars, which were designated as the dwelling of the gods in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.
“The rainy season was bad this year. We can’t easily control climate conditions,” Hani said.
Drought was blamed for the infestation of a wood wasp called Cephalcia tannourinensis that ravaged cedars in Tannourin in Lebanon several years ago.
“This [wasp] lives with the cedars in the same environment. But warm weather and rising temperatures have extended its life cycle from once a year to three times a year, leading to the problem of Tannourin,” Hani said.
While Hmaidan said global warming could “transform Lebanon into a desert,” Asmar said the effects of climate change in the long run could not yet be measured.
“Unfortunately, Arab countries are not exerting enough efforts like the rest of the world to face climate challenges,” Hmaidan said.
However, Asmar said there was not enough data available to sound the death knell of the trees at this time.
“The changes are not obvious yet,” he said. “The trees here could adapt.”
In Lebanon, the majestic tree is a symbol of the country’s identity and is on the national flag.
It is also the symbol of a number of political parties, such as the Christian groups, the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces.