Boreal Forests: The Carbon the World Forgot

This is a guest post from David Childs with The International Boreal Conservation Campaign. For terrific graphics and images, click here.

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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11 Responses to Boreal Forests: The Carbon the World Forgot

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    Yeah, so true.

    But bark beetle infestations are devastating something like 30 or 40 million acres of Canadian forest, much more than here in the U.S., as a direct consequence of global warming. Want to bet these infestations will get worse, as temperatures increase?

    Permafrost soils, as they melt, contain an estimated 1.6 trillion tons of carbon, some portion of which will now enter the atmosphere as CO2 or worse, methane.

    Summer wildfires are already increasing, another positive feedback injecting CO2 into the atmosphere, and if we want to keep these forests, we are going to have to actively intervene to fire protect them.

    We need to actively intervene in these forests, in my opinion, cutting the beetle killed trees, clearing them of combustible undergrowth, and clearing firebreaks through them. The resulting biomass can then be locally transformed into biochar for incorporation into forest soils or better yet transported to carbon negative BECCS power plants for generation of electricity and subsequent deep injection of CO2.

    Large scale transport to converted fossil fuel power plants could be by river, ocean, gravity assisted rail, bio-fueled trucks, biochar log pipeline, or as pyrolysis gas.

    We need to keep as much of the standing carbon contained in the forests out of the atmosphere as possible, because as the permafrost melts, that 1.6 trillion tons of carbon contained in the permafrost is likely to start transferring partially to the atmosphere. And as things are projected to develop, a large portion of that 700 billion tons of carbon contained in the boreal forests will also enter the atmosphere, due to huge firestorms during the summer.

    What we need is a global plan, based on sound modeling, incorporating the best science and satellite monitoring we have, which has an end goal of 350 ppm of CO2 or less, to keep all this from happening.

    Conservation has been redefined by global warming.

    As much of the carbon contained in the temperate and boreal forests as possible, consistent with fire protection efforts, needs to go back underground, using BECCS (Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage)power plants, I think.

    A huge scale application of BECCS and carbon negative energy production can artificially move us back past the tipping points we have likely already passed to safety, I think.

    Absent BECCS, as I’ve repeated many times, Lovelock was right, I think, and the climate will continue to accelerate out of control.

  2. paulm says:

    A view from the near future…

    Antarctic iceberg found floating near Macquarie island

    Australian biologist spots ‘huge floating island of ice’ halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica

  3. Lee Kee Seng says:

    As much of the carbon is stored due to incomplete decomposition as a result of lower temperature. Sounds like global warming will release a large portion of this carbon by accelerating decomposition.

  4. paulm says:

    New Army Corps Policy Forces Project Designers to Consider Rising Seas

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    The Boreal is being logged for toilet paper, pulp for newspapers and catalogs, and trusses for the US. Most logging is old growth. This is a tragedy, especially since regrowth rates are extremely slow. I wrote an article for Forest Voice on the general subject of North American deforestation and timber industry faux carbon accounting. It can be accessed along with the background research at

    I proved that if we switched from two by four house construction to light steel, this would have double the favorable impact on our emissions budget than requiring every new car to be a hybrid getting 45 mpg. Timber industry influence- abetted by newsmedia/newsprint relationships- keeps this vital information from getting out.

    Joe’s post here is one of the first I’ve seen about the boreal on any climate blog. The boreal is the biggest terrestrial sink, by far, and if anything Canadian logging practices are worse than those in the Amazon, and those in the US are worse still, considering the massive herbicides and soil biota destruction.

  6. Canada’s boreal forest is cherished by Canadians for the reasons Mr. Childs explains in this post and more, including so many explained in the full report, including as a refuge for species extripated from their former ranges further south. Our stewardship of the forest is global responsbility and the Government of Alberta embraces that. Predictably, the oil sands development of some 680 km2 of the 3.2 million km2 boreal is highlighted here, but unfortunately not mentioned is the fact of reclamation, which requires the land to be returned to self-sustaining ecosystem with similar capacities as it held before development. Yes, oil sands development has an impact – as does the 70,000 km2 of boreal coverted to agricultural use. It is our job to mitigate that impact, a task more effectively taken on if you correctly assess what it is to begin with. Here’s a study that helps explain that impact so far, my apologies for the long url:;jsessionid=5A1BDA9D22ACD32E4487247EBC1E39F2?categoryId=30&showNews=true&newsId=246

    – David Sands, for the Government of Alberta

  7. Leif says:

    David Sands: You say that you are committed to reclaiming the land to previous condition. Does that include the CARBON STOMP of the resources exploited and released to be dealt with by all the rest of us? MY guess is NO but please correct me if I am wrong. That is why it is so important to have a tax on carbon, so that the environmental impacts are factored into the up front costs of exploitation and use and not just planting trees to get the same scenery.

  8. Greg Robie says:

    I believe the reference to permafrost storage of biomass is in error. I was taught you need an the pressure of a glacier to set the stage for permafrost creation. If so, this is an inter-glacier period, so no permafrost creation, just hawing. Also, the solar incidence is low and the soils are glaciated so, as noted in another comment, s l o w growth rates, though the warming will help this rate . . . until the beetle infestation moves in.

    Any bets that the methane release won’t dwarf any carbon sequestering increase?

  9. Jeff R. says:

    Sounds like the boreal forest is yet another hostage that Russia’s holds as it extracts concessions from the rest of the world for participation in any climate deal.

  10. Cynthia says:

    We have two major sinks to help us out of this climate mess: forests and oceans. There’s not much we can do about oceans becoming saturated. However, there is A LOT we can do to preserve the forests! There should be strict laws to prevent the destruction of trees!!!!!

  11. Leif says:

    Cynthia, # 10′ While I whole heartily agree, I would point out that pine beetles are doing a much better job pushing us in the other direction. We have similar effects as posted above on CP here in the Pacific North West Cascade mountains. Google photos, heart breaking. Under reported…