When we think about forests and climate change, we tend to think about tropical forests. This is not without undue reason – some of the highest rates of deforestation are happening in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia Pacific. But one source of carbon, which happens to be the world’s largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon, has been mostly overlooked in international climate discussions to date. I’m talking, of course, about the boreal forest.
The global boreal forest circles the northern portion of our globe, carefully edging along the southern arctic through Russia, Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska. A report out today by the Canadian Boreal Initiative and Boreal Songbird Initiative states that the boreal forest stores as much as 703 billion tons of carbon in its trees, peatlands, and soils – this amounts to nearly twice the storage capacity per unit area as tropical forests.
So what makes these numbers so high? The main difference with boreal forests is that a significant portion of its carbon is stored below vegetation level whereas tropical forests tend to store the majority of their carbon in the trees and plants themselves. Because boreal forests reside in much colder climates, much of the carbon stored in its vegetation never fully decomposes and is gradually pushed into thick layers of peat and permafrost to be stored for thousands of years.
The report also argues that the intactness of the boreal forest will be vital in coming years for species adapting to the effects of global warming. A report earlier this year by the Audubon Society found that many North American birds have shifted their wintering ranges further north over the past century as a result of climate change. Species like the Woodland Caribou have seen drastic declines in numbers in recent years due to a combination of climate change and habitat destruction. Maintaining healthy, intact ecosystems for these species battling with changing environments will be crucial for their long-term viability.
While rates of deforestation in boreal forests tend to be lower than tropical forests, this is no cause for indifference. Around 30% of Canada’s Boreal Forest has been designated for logging, and this number becomes much higher when including mining and oil and gas leases. A recent report by Global Forest Watch Canada (link 3) found that the oil extraction technique of strip-mining large underground deposits of bitumen (often called ‘tar sands’ due to its thick texture prior to being separated from clays and soils) has devastated a landscape in Alberta of 686 km2, holding up to 21 million tons of carbon. Approved and proposed mining projects account for another 29.6 million tons of biotic carbon, and under a full development scenario of surface and insitu bitumen in the region, it has been estimated that 238 million tons of carbon would be released from tar sands industrial development.
The co-benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation for species make the boreal forest an ideal place for large-scale conservation. Some success has been achieved at domestic levels, but the international push for boreal conservation has been slow to wake up. Global leaders should not halt their focus on tropical forests in favor of boreal forests, but rather adopt the boreal forest as the next frontier for climate-focused forest conservation.
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- Indonesia pledges CO2 cut of 26% to 41% by 2020, “We will change the status of our forest from that of a net emitter sector to a net sink sector by 2030.”