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 »

Ice Age? No. Abrupt warmings and hunting together polished off Holarctic megafauna

24 07 2015
Oh shit oh shit oh shit ...

Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

Did ice ages cause the Pleistocene megafauna to go extinct? Contrary to popular opinion, no, they didn’t. But climate change did have something to do with them, only it was global warming events instead.

Just out today in Science, our long-time-coming (9 years in total if you count the time from the original idea to today) paper ‘Abrupt warmings drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover‘ led by Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Chris Turney of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre demonstrates for the first time that abrupt warming periods over the last 60,000 years were at least partially responsible for the collapse of the megafauna in Eurasia and North America.

You might recall that I’ve been a bit sceptical of claims that climate changes had much to do with megafauna extinctions during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, mainly because of the overwhelming evidence that humans had a big part to play in their demise (surprise, surprise). What I’ve rejected though isn’t so much that climate had nothing to do with the extinctions; rather, I took issue with claims that climate change was the dominant driver. I’ve also had problems with blanket claims that it was ‘always this’ or ‘always that’, when the complexity of biogeography and community dynamics means that it was most assuredly more complicated than most people think.

I’m happy to say that our latest paper indeed demonstrates the complexity of megafauna extinctions, and that it took a heap of fairly complex datasets and analyses to demonstrate. Not only were the data varied – the combination of scientists involved was just as eclectic, with ancient DNA specialists, palaeo-climatologists and ecological modellers (including yours truly) assembled to make sense of the complicated story that the data ultimately revealed. Read the rest of this entry »

Earth’s second lung has emphysema

19 02 2015


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 »

When human society breaks down, wildlife suffers

22 01 2015

bearGlobal human society is a massive, consumptive beast that on average degrades its life-support system. As we’ve recently reported, this will only continue to get worse in the decades to centuries to come. Some have argued that as long as we can develop our societies enough, the impact of this massive demographic force can be lessened – a concept described by the environmental Kuznets curve. However, there is little evidence that negative societal impact on the environment is lessened as per capita wealth exceeds some threshold; unfortunately environmental damage tends to, on average, increase as a nation’s net wealth increases. That’s not to say that short-term improvements cannot be achieved through technological innovation – in fact, they will be essential to offset the inexorable growth of the global human population.

So poor nations as well as the wealthy ones are responsible for environmental damage. Poorer nations often have ineffective governance systems so they fail to enforce compliance in environmental regulations, but wealthier nations often exploit a high proportion of their natural resources, with the inevitable environmental damage this entails. In some cases however, biodiversity can temporarily escape some of the ravages of society because humans either perceive the area to be too dangerous, or otherwise have no incentive to go there. There are some good examples of the latter, such as the vicinity around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, or the Korean demilitarised zone.

In this vein, I just stumbled across an extremely interesting paper today published online early in Conservation Biology that describes trends in charismatic wildlife (i.e., big mammals) as the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and societal breakdown ensued. The authors had access to an amazing dataset that spanned the decade prior to the collapse, the decade immediately following, and a subsequent decade of societal renewal. What they found was fascinating. 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 »

Get boreal

7 06 2012

I’ve been a little quiet this last week because I’ve had to travel to the other side of the planet for what turned out to be a very interesting and scientifically lucrative workshop. After travelling 31 hours from Adelaide to Umeå in northern Sweden, I wondered to myself if it was going to be worth it for a 2.5-day workshop on a little island (Norrbyskär) in the Baltic Sea (which, as it turned out, didn’t have internet access).

The answer is a categorical ‘yes’!

Many of you know that I’ve dabbled in boreal forest conservation in the past, but I could never claim any real expertise in the area. Hence it came as something of a shock when Jon Moen of Umeå University asked me to attend a specialist workshop focused loosely on making the plight and importance of the boreal forest more widely acknowledged. I dragged my feet initially, but Jon convinced me that I could add something to the mix.

It was a small workshop, but well-represented by all boreal countries save Norway (i.e., we had Russians, Swedes, Finns, Canadians and Americans – this Australian was indeed the odd one out). We also had a wide array of expertise, from carbon accountants, political scientists, political economists, native cultures experts, ecologists to foresters. Our mandate – justify why we should pay more attention to this globally important region.

Just how important is the boreal forest? We managed to unearth some little-appreciated facts: Read the rest of this entry »

Who are the world’s biggest environmental reprobates?

5 05 2010

Everyone is a at least a little competitive, and when it comes to international relations, there could be no higher incentive for trying to do better than your neighbours than a bit of nationalism (just think of the Olympics).

We rank the world’s countries for pretty much everything, relative wealth, health, governance quality and even happiness. There are also many, many different types of ‘environmental’ indices ranking countries. Some attempt to get at that nebulous concept of ‘sustainability’, some incorporate human health indices, and other are just plain black box (see Böhringer et al. 2007 for a review).

With that in mind, we have just published a robust (i.e., to missing data, choices for thresholds, etc.), readily quantifiable (data available for most countries) and objective (no arbitrary weighting systems) index of a country’s relative environmental impact that focuses ONLY on environment (i.e., not human health or economic indicators) – something no other metric does. We also looked at indices relative to opportunity – that is, looking at how much each country has degraded relative to what it had to start with.

We used the following metrics to create a combined environmental impact rank: natural forest loss, habitat conversion, fisheries and other marine captures, fertiliser use, water pollution, carbon emissions from land-use change and threatened species.

The paper, entitled Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries was just published in the open-access journal PLoS One with my colleagues Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Xingli Giam, formerly of NUS but now at Princeton University in the USA.

So who were the worst? Relative to resource availability (i.e,. how much forest area, coastline, water, arable land, species, etc. each country has), the proportional environmental impact ranked (from worst) the following ten countries:

  1. Singapore
  2. Korea
  3. Qatar
  4. Kuwait
  5. Japan
  6. Thailand
  7. Bahrain
  8. Malaysia
  9. Philippines
  10. Netherlands

When considering just the absolute impact (i.e., not controlling for resource availability), the worst ten were:

  1. Brazil
  2. USA
  3. China
  4. Indonesia
  5. Japan
  6. Mexico
  7. India
  8. Russia
  9. Australia
  10. Peru

Interestingly (and quite unexpectedly), the authors’ home countries (Singapore, Australia, USA) were in either the worst ten proportional or absolute ranks. Embarrassing, really (for a full list of all countries, see supporting information). Read the rest of this entry »