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Boreal forest protection critical to survival as climate changes

The coniferous forest that wraps around the subarctic latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere offers the world’s best opportunity to apply conservation as a climate change strategy, according to a report released today. The boreal forest, as it is called, must be preserved because it is holding vast amounts of carbon in and under its trees, and also because it offers...

The coniferous forest that wraps around the subarctic latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere offers the world’s best opportunity to apply conservation as a climate change strategy, according to a report released today.

The boreal forest, as it is called, must be preserved because it is holding vast amounts of carbon in and under its trees, and also because it offers a buffer for plants and animals impacted by climate change.

Cut down those trees and develop the land and all that carbon will be released into the atmosphere–and the animals and plants seeking sanctuary from the warmer lower latitudes will have nowhere to go.


Carbon-rich wetlands in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Photo by Chad Delany, Ducks Unlimited

“When the world thinks of forests and their value to offset global warming, tropical forests come to mind,” say the Boreal Songbird Initiative and the Canadian Boreal Initiative, sponsors of the report The Carbon the World Forgot.

The report released today shows that the global impact of Canada’s boreal forest, which stores nearly twice as much carbon per acre as tropical forests, has been vastly underestimated.


Canada’s boreal forest

Map courtesy of Boreal Songbird Initiative

The Carbon the World Forgot identifies the boreal forests of North America as not only the cornerstone habitat for key mammal species, but one of the most significant carbon stores in the world, the equivalent of 26 years of global emissions from burning fossil fuels, based on 2006 emissions levels. Globally, these forests store 22 percent of all carbon on the earth’s land surface,” says a statement accompanying the release of the report.


Breakdown of carbon stored by global forest biome

Chart courtesy of Boreal Songbird Initiative

“Past accounting greatly underestimated the amount and depth of carbon stored in and under the boreal forest,” says Jeff Wells, an author of the report. “In addition to carbon storage in trees, organic matter accumulated over millennia is stored in boreal peatlands and areas of permafrost. Some of this boreal carbon has been in place for up to 8,000 years.”

“The boreal forest’s status as the most intact forest left on Earth also offers a unique opportunity for plants and animals forced to adapt to shifting habitats.”

The boreal forest’s status as the most intact forest left on Earth also offers a unique opportunity for plants and animals forced to adapt to shifting habitats. Most other habitats today are highly fragmented by human activity, creating a variety of additional obstacles for species survival, the statement added.


Oscar Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories

Photo by D. Langhorst, Ducks Unlimited

“In light of these findings, today’s report urges that international negotiations on carbon and forest protection consider ways to account for and protect the boreal,” the authors say.

“Any effective and affordable response to climate change should include preserving the world’s remaining, carbon-rich old-growth forests,” said Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign. “This report makes clear that nations must look not just at the tropics but at all the world’s old-growth forests for climate change solutions.”


Top intact forests–largest in red, followed by yellow and green, representing forests undisturbed to date by humans.

Map courtesy of Boreal Songbird Initiative

“Keeping that carbon in place by protecting boreal forests is an important part of the climate equation,” said Andrew Weaver, “If you cut down the boreal forest and disturb its peatlands, you release more carbon, accelerating climate change.” Weaver of the University of Victoria is a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Prize.


Triangle Lake, part of northern Ontario’s boreal forest

Photo by Jeff Wells, Boreal Songbird Initiative

“The collision of climate disruption and massive human degradation of ecosystems is seriously worrying globally,” said conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University. “These changes are surely novel in earth’s history. Maintaining the boreal forest’s intactness will be critical to slowing ecosystem shifts and to providing migratory corridors for displaced wildlife.” Stuart Pimm is a regular contributor to NatGeo News Watch. 


Global warming is expected to affect caribou populations worldwide, like this small herd near MacMillan Pass, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Photo by Larry Innes, Canadian Boreal Initiative

“Conservation can be an important tool in the fight to mitigate climate change,” said Larry Innes, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, a sponsor of the report. “International protocols and legislation need to create opportunities to maintain the carbon stored in intact boreal forest soils, peatlands, and wetlands while enabling indigenous and local communities to take a leadership role in determining how to best conserve not only carbon, but the full suite of ecological, cultural and economic values that the boreal forest represents.”


The Bay-breasted warbler has declined 70 percent over the last 40 years. Only 7 percent of its boreal forest habitat is protected. The migratory bird breeds in the coniferous woodlands.

Photo by Jeff Nadler

More than 1,500 international scientists led by authors for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended in 2007 that at least half of Canada’s boreal forest be protected from further disturbance–in large part to keep both the boreal forest carbon bank and internationally significant wildlife habitats intact.

Despite the current lack of international protocol, several Canadian First Nation, provincial, and federal governments have taken important steps to protect hundreds of millions of acres of Canada’s carbon rich boreal forest. In all, scientists are recommending that at least 300 million hectares be protected.

Read on for more photos, maps, and the full text of the executive summary of the report The Carbon the World Forgot:

Executive Summary


Although the Kyoto Protocol represented a giant step forward in climate change policy, it was deficient with respect to how it addressed the continuing release of biotic (non-industrial) carbon–estimated by most experts as contributing nearly 20 percent of global man-made carbon emissions.


The protocol fails to fully address carbon release caused by the disturbance of ecosystems by humans. Efforts are underway to address this shortcoming, but the current effort focuses almost exclusively on the fate of tropical forest tracts in developing nations.


Boreal forests: The world’s largest terrestrial carbon bank

Boreal forests circle the globe at subarctic latitudes, cover more than 10 percent of the world’s land area, and harbor half of the world’s remaining intact wilderness tracts.

These vast undeveloped areas provide a stronghold for the world’s largest and healthiest populations of northern mammals like caribou, bear, wolves and moose, as well as migratory songbirds and waterfowl.


Small herd of caribou near MacMillan Pass, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Photo by Larry Innes, Canadian Boreal Initiative

Perhaps even more importantly, boreal forest regions store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem, almost twice as much per acre as tropical forests.

Yet, for reasons that are unclear, boreal forests seem to be the carbon the world forgot.


Soil organic carbon in Canada’s boreal forest

Map courtesy of Boreal Songbird Initiative

As with tropical and temperate forests, boreal forests sequester and store carbon in surface vegetation, but in addition have accumulated and conserved annual increments of carbon for millennia in associated soils, permafrost deposits, wetlands and peatlands.

The carbon stored below ground in the boreal forest dwarfs the surface carbon in the trees, a fact that has not always been fully appreciated.

Recent studies reviewed in this report find that previous global carbon accounting vastly underestimated the amount and depth of organic carbon stored below the surface of boreal forests.


Human-related disturbances within Canada’s boreal forest.

Map courtesy of Boreal Songbird Initiative

When boreal forest vegetation or soils are disturbed, carbon is released, climate change is accelerated, and biotic carbon storage is diminished. Keeping boreal forest carbon reservoirs intact forestalls and limits initiation of feedback loops that could greatly accelerate the pace of climate change.

Boreal conservation contributes not only to reducing the rate of climate change (i.e., mitigation) but also to minimizing its adverse effects (i.e., adaptation). The unprecedented rate of climate change expected in northern regions has profound implications.

Anticipated impacts are diverse and include rapid northward shifting of habitat, increased fire and insect outbreaks, altered phenology, and degraded aquatic systems.


The boreal forest is a haven for animals already extirpated from southern ranges, like the gray wolf.

Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited

Fortunately, Canada’s Boreal Forest is better suited than most to withstand such changes due to its intactness.

Intact ecosystems will help buffer species from a changing climate, while also permitting species migrations needed to track shifting habitat. Canada’s Boreal Forest is already a haven for species that have been extirpated from more southern areas, and this role will only increase in the future as species are pushed north by climate change.

Policies that match the scientific understanding of the region’s importance for mitigation and adaptation are urgently needed, especially in a new climate change agreement or future international frameworks.

New policies needed to protect boreal forests

Two simple changes to the protocol that would have far-reaching beneficial impacts are inclusion of all below-ground carbon sources (including degradation of peatlands) and mandatory accounting of all carbon emissions from forest management. These changes alone would motivate large improvements in the management of biotic


In addition, requiring that biotic carbon projects have a positive or neutral affect on biodiversity and ecosystem services would help maintain the capacity of ecosystems to adapt to climate change.


Carbon and caribou: Vital caribou habitat overlays dense carbon areas

Map courtesy of Boreal Songbird Initiative

The global boreal forest presents the world’s best opportunity to apply conservation as a climate change strategy, both to avoid release of the region’s vast carbon stores and thereby further accelerate climate change, as well as to maintain the ecological integrity necessary to buffer the impacts of climate change on the flora and fauna of

the region.

Moreover, the wealthy, developed world countries that control large areas of the boreal forest–Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian nations– have strong rule of law and fewer competing needs, two considerations that bolster the odds of successful environmental protection efforts.

As the world works toward a new climate change agreement, and focuses on controlling emissions from deforestation and land-use changes in the tropics, it is essential that the potential contributions of boreal forests be more fully considered.


Part of the newly-expanded Nahanni National Park, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Photo by Steve Kallick, International Boreal Conservation Campaign

Globally only a small fraction of the boreal forest has been protected in a natural state. Meanwhile, the deleterious impacts of climate change and burgeoning industrial development in the far north threaten rapid loss of the boreal forest’s ecological integrity.

Common international goals for ecosystem protection, calling for a tenth of the wilderness to be reserved from development, fail to respond to the challenges or capitalize on opportunities in the boreal forest. New approaches and ideas, more extensive in their ambition and reach, will be required.

Read the full report >>

The Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) is a national convener for conservation in Canada’s Boreal Forest. It works with conservation organizations, First Nations, industry and other interested parties–including members of the Boreal Leadership Council–to link science, policy and conservation solutions across Canada’s Boreal Forest.

The Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI) is a charity dedicated to raising awareness, through science, education, and outreach, of the importance of the Canadian Boreal Forest to North America’s birds, other wildlife, and the global environment.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn