For centuries, the Lebanon cedar was prized for its value in construction projects. Its attractive appearance and easily worked properties made it useful for building temples and ships, and it was routinely mentioned in the Bible as the primary material for many such projects.
Given the popularity of the tree, it's little wonder that forests that once stretched for several thousand square miles have been reduced to isolated groves scattered around Lebanon, totaling around 17 square miles, according to The New York Times.
One such grove, the Cedars of God, is perhaps the most famous, and Lebanon has done what it can to protect the grove, fencing it off for preservation with a stone wall since 1876. UNESCO declared it and the valley around it, Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley), a World Heritage Site in 1998 in an effort to keep the grove safe.
The trees face a different danger today, one that doesn't threaten to turn them into boats or buildings. Climate change is altering the trees' environment and exposing them to threats that scientists didn't anticipate, including insects that have never harmed the cedars before.
The region's milder winters are largely at the root of the cedars' woes. Traditionally, the seedlings have begun to sprout from the soil in early May, but many are appearing in early April. This puts them at risk for a sudden damaging frost.
In addition, there are fewer days of rain or snow in the winter than there were a generation ago, down to 40 days from 105. Cedars rely on this water for their regeneration and growth.
"Climate change is a fact here," Nizar Hani, director of Lebanon's largest protected area, the Shouf Biosphere, told The Times. "There is less rain, higher temperatures and more extreme temperatures."
And that's not all. "The cedar forest is migrating to higher altitudes," he added, explaining that this could have a significant impact on species that rely on the cedars. Their ability to survive in higher altitudes is also in question.
Tiny insects fell a mighty tree
The shift in temperature also brings different insect threats. The cedar web-spinning sawfly (Cephalcia tannourinensis) has seen an increase in the length of its life cycle thanks to warmer weather and less humidity in the summer. Typically, the sawfly buries itself in the winter and rarely interfered with cedars' developments. But with shorter, warmer winters, the sawflies are emerging sooner and laying their larvae earlier. This results in more outbreaks of the sawfly, which feasts on the needles of young cedars.
The sawfly was unknown to researchers until 1998, when Nabil Nemer, a Lebanese entomologist, determined that the sawflies were responsible for a blight that took out 7 percent of the Tannourine Cedars Forest Nature Reserve, the country's densest cedar forest, between 2006 and 2018.
Efforts are underway to preserve and spread the cedars, including a national goal of planting 40 million trees, many of them cedars. Non-governmental programs have also planted cedars in certain areas, but private property and governmental zoning laws make the work more hodgepodge than concentrated.
Also slowing down efforts are the trees themselves. It can take between 40 to 50 years for Lebanon cedars to bear cones, making the cultivation and reproduction process a long one.
Still, the cedar is sturdy, both physically and culturally. It can survive in different altitudes, depending on soil and access to water and shade. The tree is featured in the Lebanon flag, it been included on minted currency and it often features prominently in political banners.
The Lebanon cedar is a valued part of the country's natural and cultural identity, and one worthy of protection.