I have the dubious pleasure today of introducing a recently published paper of ours that was at the same time both intellectually stimulating and demoralising to write. I will make no apologies for becoming emotionally involved in the scientific issues about which my colleagues and I write (as long as I can maintain with absolute sincerity that the data used and conclusions drawn are as objectively presented as I am capable), and this paper probably epitomises that stance more than most I’ve written during my career.
The topic is especially important to me because of its subtle, yet potentially disastrous consequences for biodiversity and climate change. It’s also a personal issue because it’s happening in a place I used to (many, many years ago) call home.
Despite comprising about a third of the world’s entire forested area and harbouring some of the lowest human densities anywhere, the great boreal forest that stretches across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia is under severe threat.
Surprised that we’re not talking about tropical deforestation for once? Surprised that so-called ‘developed’ nations are pilfering the last great carbon sink and biodiversity haven left on the planet? If you have read any of the posts on this blog, you probably shouldn’t be.
The paper today appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and is entitled Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity (by CJA Bradshaw, IG Warkentin & NS Sodhi). It’s essentially a review of the status of the boreal forest from a biodiversity perspective, and includes a detailed assessment of the degree of its fragmentation, species threat, climate- and human-influenced disturbance regime, and its carbon sequestration/emission status. I’ll summarise some of the main findings below:
- Russia contains ~53 % of the boreal forest, followed by Canada (25 %), USA (18 %, mostly in Alaska), Sweden (2 %) and Finland and Norway (~1 % each); there are small areas of boreal forest in northern China and Mongolia.
- Fire is the main driver of change in the boreal forest. Although clearing for logging and mining abounds, it pales in comparison to the massive driver that is fire.
- There is evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and possibly extent of fires in the boreal zone. That said, most fires are started by humans, and this is particularly the case in the largest expanse in Russia (in Russia alone, 7.5 and 14.5 million hectares burnt in 2002 and 2003, respectively).
- While few countries report an overall change in boreal forest extent, the degree of fragmentation and ‘quality’ is declining – only about 40 % of the total forested area is considered ‘intact’ (defined here as areas ≥ 500 km2, internally undivided by things such as roads, and with linear dimensions ≥ 10 km).
- Russian boreal forest is the most degraded and least ‘intact’, and has suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades compared to other boreal countries.
- Boreal countries have only < 10 % of their forests protected from wood exploitation, except Sweden where it’s about 20 %.
- There are over 20000 species described in the boreal forest – a number much less than that estimated for tropical forests even of much smaller size.
- 94 % of the 348 IUCN Red Listed boreal species are considered to be threatened with extinction, but other estimates from local assessments compiled together in 2000 (the United Nations’ Temperate and Boreal Forest Resources Assessment) place the percentages of threatened species up to 46 % for some taxa in some countries (e.g., mosses in Sweden). The latter assessment placed the Fennoscandian countries as having the highest proportions of at-risk taxa (ferns, mosses, lichens, vascular plants, butterflies, birds, mammals and ‘other vertebrates’), with Sweden having the highest proportion in almost all categories.
- Boreal forest ecosystems contain about 30 % of the terrestrial carbon stored on Earth (~ 550 Gigatonnes).
- Mass insect outbreaks killing millions of trees across the entire boreal region are on the rise.
- Although considered in the past as a global carbon sink, recent disturbances (e.g., increasing fire and insect outbreak) and refinements of measurement mean that much of the area is probably a carbon source (at least, temporarily).
- A single insect outbreak in western Canada earlier this decade thought to be the direct result of a warming planet contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than all of that country’s transport industry and fire-caused release combined.
- Current timber harvest management is inadequately prepared to emulate natural fire regimes and account for shifting fire patterns with climate change.
- No amount of timber management can offset the damage done by increasing fire – we must manage fire better to have any chance of saving the boreal forest as a carbon sink and biodiversity haven.
Those include the main take-home messages. I invite you to read the paper in full and contact us (the authors) if you have any questions.
Full reference: Bradshaw, CJA, IG Warkentin, NS Sodhi. 2009. Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.019