Sink to source – the loss of biodiversity’s greatest ecosystem service

29 02 2012

I’ve mentioned this idea before, but it’s nice when some real data support a prediction (no matter how gloomy that prediction might have been). It’s what drives scientists toward discovery (or at least, it’s what I find particularly appealing about my job).

Several years ago, my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi† and Ian Warkentin) and I wrote a major review in TREE about the fate of the world’s ‘second’ lung of the planet, the great boreal forests of Russia, Canada & Scandinavia. We discussed how fragmentation was increasing at an alarming rate, and that although most species there are still relatively intact, we stand to lose a lot of its biodiversity if we don’t halt the fragmenting processes soon. We wrote more on the subject in a paper to appear imminently in Biological Conservation.

Another component though that we raised in the TREE paper was the boreal forests were very much in danger of turning into a net carbon producer. You see, the ‘lung’ analogy is very pertinent because on average, the growth of the massive expanse of the vegetation in the forest generally takes up much more atmospheric carbon that it exudes through decay and burning (for as we all know, plants take up carbon dioxide to produce sugars during photosynthesis, and produce oxygen as a ‘waste’ product). However, as we fragment, cut down and burn the forest, it can end up producing more than it takes up (i.e., turning from a ‘sink’ to a ‘source’). We highlighted several studies indicating how insect outbreaks and human-exacerbated fire intensities and frequencies could conceivably do this.

Now Zhihai Ma and colleagues have just compiled a paper in PNAS indicating that the danger is well on the way to becoming reality in Canada. The paper entitled Regional drought-induced reduction in the biomass carbon sink of Canada’s boreal forests reports the results from 96 long-term permanent sampling plots spread right across southern Canada – from British Columbia in the far west, to Newfoundland in the far east. Read the rest of this entry »

Slicing the second ‘lung of the planet’

12 12 2011


Apologies for the slow-down in postings this past week – as many of you know, I was attending the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Auckland. I’ll blog about the conference later (and the stoush that didn’t really occur), but suffice it to say it was very much worthwhile.

This post doesn’t have a lot to do per se with the conference, but it was stimulated by a talk I attended by Conservation Scholar Stuart Pimm. Now, Stuart is known mainly as a tropical conservation biologist, but as it turns out, he also is a champion of temperate forests – he even sits on the science panel of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign.

I too have dabbled in boreal issues over my career, and most recently with a review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution on the knife-edge plight of boreal biodiversity and carbon stores. That paper was in fact the result of a brain-storming session Navjot Sodhi and I had one day during my visit to Singapore sometime in 2007. We thought, “It doesn’t really seem that people are focussing their conservation attention on the boreal forest; how bad is it really?”.

Well, it turns out that the boreal forest is still a vast expanse and that there aren’t too many species in imminent danger of extinction; however, that’s where the good news ends. The forest itself is becoming more and more fragmented from industrial development (namely, forestry, mining, petroleum surveying and road-building) and the fire regime has changed irrevocably from a combination of climate change and intensified human presence. You can read all these salient features here.

So, back to my original thread – Stuart gave a great talk on the patterns of deforestation worldwide, with particular emphasis on how satellite imagery hides much of the fine-scale damage that we humans do to the world’s great forests. It was when he said (paraphrased) that “50,000 km2 of boreal forest is lost each year, but even that statistic hides a major checkerboard effect” that my interest was peaked. Read the rest of this entry »

Putting environmental testing to the test

25 11 2010

A few months ago I made a general call for submissions to I’m happy to say that the first person answering that call has come through with the goods. Please welcome Julie Pollock of Environment Canada and her post on environmental testing. Thanks, Julie.

Environment Canada is often called upon to assess damage or the risk of damage to natural systems. Scientific and legal staff depend on the reliability of test methods and, in some cases, may require entirely new methods. Challenges federal government researchers face supporting these assessments include ensuring ecological relevance in subject selection, keeping up with industry to capture new substances, and understanding the cumulative nature of damaging pollutants.

The Biological Assessment and Standardization Section, led by Rick Scroggins, develops, validates and standardizes test methods for assessing contaminants in natural soil systems. Part of the Science & Technology Branch, they are located in the National Capital Region (Ottawa) where they work closely with the Enforcement Branch.

Their test methods support assessments of new and existing chemical substances and programs to clean up contaminated sites under federal jurisdiction. The group provides test method research to Natural Resources Canada’s Program of Energy Research and Development, which funds government R&D for sustainable energy. Another collaborator is Alberta, one of Canada’s largest provinces, which requires expertise in soil sampling and assessments associated with oil and gas extraction in the northern boreal and taiga ecozones. Read the rest of this entry »

Global rates of forest loss – everyone’s a bastard

29 04 2010

© A. Hesse

I’ve written rather a lot about rates of forest loss around the world, including accumulated estimates of tropical forest loss and increasing fragmentation/loss in the boreal forest (see Bradshaw et al. 2009 Front Ecol Evol & Bradshaw et al. 2009 Trends Ecol Evol). For the tropics in particular, we used the index that an area of rain forest about the size of Bangladesh (> 15 million hectares) was disappearing each year, and in Russia alone, annual decline in forest area averaged 1.1 million hectares between 1988 and 1993. Mind boggling, really.

But some of these estimates were a bit old, relied on some imprecise satellite data, and didn’t differentiate forest types well. In addition, many have questioned whether the rates are continuing and which countries are being naughty or nice with respect to forest conservation.

It was great therefore when I came across a new paper in PNAS by Hansen & colleagues entitled Quantification of global gross forest cover loss because it answered many of the latter questions.

Part of the problem in assessing worldwide forest cover loss in the past was the expense of satellite imagery, access problems, data storage and processing issues. Happily, new satellite streams and easing of access has rectified many of these limitations. Hansen & colleagues took advantage of data from the MODIS sensor to create a stratification for forest cover loss. They then used the Landsat ETM+ sensor as the primary data for quantifying gross forest cover loss for the entire planet from 2000 to 2005. They defined ‘forest cover’ as “… 25% or greater canopy closure at the Landsat pixel scale (30-m × 30-m spatial resolution) for trees > 5 m in height”.

For your reading pleasure (and conservation horror), the salient features were: Read the rest of this entry »

Fragmen borealis: degradation of the world’s last great forest

12 08 2009


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).
  • © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

    Warmer temperatures have predisposed coniferous forest in western Canada to a severe outbreak of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) extending over > 13 M ha. © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

  • 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.

CJA Bradshaw

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

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