Threats to the Boreal
Although significant expanses of Canada’s northern boreal regions remain relatively pristine and unspoiled, major portions of the southern boreal have experienced heavy industrial disturbances and fragmentation. Logging has had the largest impact in terms of net area, however hydroelectric development, mining and oil and gas extraction have wielded significant and in some cases irreversible damage to the boreal forest. Boreal forests are particularly sensitive to disturbances due to shorter growing seasons and, in many places, fragile soils that limit vegetative growth.
Approximately 41 percent of the primarily-treed boreal has already witnessed anthropogenic disturbances1 and around 23 percent of the boreal overall has been degraded or damaged.2 More than 30 percent of Canada’s boreal forest has been slated for some form of industrial development.3
Logging and forest product extraction remains the largest impact in terms of size. Eighty-five percent of the more heavily-wooded southern boreal is allocated to forest product industries and at least 100 million acres of boreal are slated for commercial logging in the coming decades.4
However, other resource and energy industries are yielding widespread impacts as well. Oil and gas extraction has spread considerably within the past few decades, particularly in the west. More than 155,000 active and 117,000 abandoned gas wells exist in the boreal, and 10,000 new wells were drilled per year over the past decade.5 The oil extraction activities in the oil sands, a large region in Alberta where bitumen is extracted from below ground and upgraded in refineries, is particularly damaging to the boreal. Not only are large areas of forest removed and surface mined for the oil underneath, but considerable amounts of water and energy are required to refine the thick bitumen. There are also serious concerns about toxins and pollutants being leaked into nearby watersheds.6
More traditional forms of mining—for metals, composites and gems—are also widespread throughout the boreal. There are more than 7,000 abandoned and 105 active mines in the boreal of various types and scales.7 Access roads often fragment pristine blocks of forest in more remote areas, and mines have been found to leak contaminants into nearby waterways, affecting far more than just the direct land being mined.8
Hydropower has also taken a considerable toll on the boreal. Canada annually diverts more water through dams than any other country on earth,9 with around 40 percent of Canada’s total output produced on rivers originating in or flowing through the boreal.10 Although hydroelectricity has lower emission rates than other energy sources such as coal, significant amounts of greenhouse gases from decomposition of organic materials are released upon flooding. The inundated region removes habitat for a variety of wildlife and the dams themselves often block migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds.
As demand for resources grows and technology provides cheaper ways to access and extract from remote regions, industrial development will continue to push north into the heart of this pristine wilderness unless action is taken soon. While the boreal forest remains an important source of income for many communities, developing the boreal in a responsible way while setting aside large portions of intact forest is imperative to creating a more sustainable and balanced economy.
Like everywhere else in the world, climate change is expected to create considerable changes to the boreal forest. Rising temperatures and more unpredictable weather patterns are expected to dramatically alter boreal landscapes in numerous ways.11 Forest covers are likely to be pushed further north into ranges currently dominated by wetlands and tundra. The density of specific trees and plants is likely to change within microenvironments, creating difficulty for wildlife species relying on particular types of habitat. Warmer temperatures and a higher proportion of droughts increase the frequency of forest fires beyond traditional levels and amplify the ability of pests such as the pine beetle to expand into previously untouched forest ecosystems.
The boreal is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Not only are the majority of trees found in the boreal slower growing than in other parts of the world, climate change is expected to affect northern ecosystems at a higher rate than equatorial ecosystems. Many parts of the boreal forest have already witnessed higher increases in temperature over the past century than the global average.12 If unaddressed, climate change could present catastrophic consequences for Canada’s boreal forest.
1 Analysis produced by Global Forest Watch Canada, 2008.
2 Analysis produced by Global Forest Watch Canada, 2012.
3 Forest Ethics. 2004. Bringing Down the Boreal. San Francisco, California.
4 Nature Conservancy. Sustainable Forestry in Canada’s Boreal Forest: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/canada/placesweprotect/sustainable-forestry-in-canadas-boreal-forest.xml (accessed June 2012).
5 Analysis produced by Global Forest Watch Canada, 2010.
6 Munk Centre and Environmental and Research Studies Centre. 2007. Running out of steam: Oil sands development and water use in the Athabasca River watershed. University of Toronto, University of Alberta.
7 Analysis produced by Global Forest Watch Canada, 2010.
8 Northwatch and MiningWatch Canada. 2008. The boreal below: Mining issues and activities in Canada’s boreal forest. Ottawa, Ontario.
9 Ghassemi, F., and I. White. 2007. Inter-basin water transfer: Case studies from Australia, United States, Canada, China and India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
10 Unpublished analysis produced by Global Forest Watch Canada.
11 Carlson, M., J. Wells, and D. Roberts. 2009. The Carbon the World Forgot: Conserving the Capacity of Canada’s Boreal Forest Region to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change. Boreal Songbird Initiative and Canadian Boreal Initiative. Seattle, Washington and Ottawa, Ontario.
12 Ogden, Aynslie. 2002. Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation in Northern Canada. Issue brief. Northern Climate ExChange Occasional Paper Ser. Vol. 3. Taiga Net. Whitehorse, Yukon.