Boreal forest on the edge of a climate-change tipping point

15 11 2016

As some know, I dabble a bit in the carbon affairs of the boreal zone, and so when writer Christine Ottery interviewed me about the topic, I felt compelled to reproduce her article here (originally published on EnergyDesk).

A view of the Waswanipi-Broadback Forest in the Abitibi region of Northern Quebec, one of the last remaining intact Boreal Forests in the province (source: EnergyDesk).

A view of the Waswanipi-Broadback forest in the Abitibi region of northern Quebec, one of the last remaining intact boreal forests in the Canadian province (source: EnergyDesk).

The boreal forest encircles the Earth around and just below the Arctic Circle like a big carbon-storing hug. It can mostly be found covering large swathes of Russia, Canada and Alaska, and some Scandinavian countries.

In fact, the boreal – sometimes called by its Russian name ‘taiga’ or ‘Great Northern Forest’ – is perhaps the biggest terrestrial carbon store in the world.

So it’s important to protect in a world where we’re aiming for 1.5 or – at worst – under two degrees celsius of global warming.

“Our capacity to limit average global warming to less than 2 degrees is already highly improbable, so every possible mechanism to reduce emissions must be employed as early as possible. Maintaining and recovering our forests is part of that solution,” Professor Corey Bradshaw, a leading researcher into boreal forests based at the University of Adelaide, told Energydesk.

It’s not that tropical rainforests aren’t important, but recent research led by Bradshaw published in Global and Planetary Change shows that that there is more carbon held in the boreal forests than previously realised.

But there’s a problem. Read the rest of this entry »





Earth’s second lung has emphysema

19 02 2015
© WWF

© WWF

Many consider forests as the ‘lungs’ of the planet – the idea that trees and other plants take up carbon and produce oxygen (the carbon and oxygen cycles). If we are to be fair though, the oceans store about 93% of the Earth’s carbon pool (excluding the lithosphere and fossil fuels) and oceanic phytoplankton produces between 50 and 80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. For comparison, the terrestrial biosphere – including forests – stores only about 5% of the Earth’s carbon, and produces most of the remainder of atmospheric oxygen.

So there’s no denying that the biggest player in these cycles is the ocean, but that’s not the topic of today’s post. Instead, I’m going to focus on the terrestrial biosphere, and in particular, the carbon storage and flux of forests.

Now it’s pretty well established that tropical forests are major players in the terrestrial carbon cycle, with the most accepted estimates of about 55% the terrestrial carbon stock stored therein. The extensive boreal forest, covering most of the northern half of North America, most of Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia, comes in globally at about 33%, and temperate forests store most of the remainder.

That is, until now. Read the rest of this entry »





Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »





Science immortalised in cartoon Version 2.0

24 09 2013

© Seppo Leinonen

I’m in the middle of participating in a short-course on science communication based at the University of Helsinki‘s Lammi Biological Station (about 1.5 hours north of Helsinki by car). Organised by two fantastic people, Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin, it’s an eclectic mix of instruction for (mainly) PhD students on how to promote yourself and your science in print, in media, in illustration, in citizen science and for policy makers.

While we aren’t yet finished, I wanted to report that I had the immense pleasure of finally meeting the immeasurably talented environmental cartoonist, Seppo Leinonen. Not only is he an extremely talented artist and a dedicated environmentalist, he’s just a top bloke.

If you haven’t checked out Seppo.net and his cartoons yet, you should.

This is just a brief post to spruik his fine work, and show off his parting cartoon gift to me: Read the rest of this entry »





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

12 08 2009
© energyportal.eu

© energyportal.eu

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:

borealfire

© NASA

  • 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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