Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Final Project: Boreal Forest in N. America


Boreal forest, also known as Taiga, is the largest terrestrial biome in the world. It covers approximately 11 percent of the Earth’s land, particularly in the high latitude areas of North America, Russia, and Scandinavia (Berg et al., 2011; Figure 1). In North America, boreal forest spans from the northern inland Alaska to the most easterly part of Newfoundland and Labrador of Canada, across the territories of Yukon, Northwest, and the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec (Figure 2 and 3). Evergreen conifers, with cones and waxy, needle-like leaves, such as balsam firs, pines, and spruces, can be typically found in this eco-region.

Figure 1: The World’s Distribution of Boreal Forest
Source: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Figure 2: The Distribution of Boreal Forest in North America (Dark Blue Area in Alaska and Canada)
Source: Terrestrial ecoregions of North America: a conservation assessment. Taylor H Ricketts; et al. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, ©1999. xxiv, 485 p. : ill. (some col.), maps (some col.); 28 cm. (ISBN 9781559637220)

Figure 3: Boreal Forest Regions in Canada (Light Green Color)

Source: The Atlas of Canada


After the retreat of the Wisconsin glaciations, the Canadian boreal forest began to form about 5,000 years ago. Because of the harsh environment, severe weather condition, limited precipitation, and short growing season, boreal forest was historically one of the least populated areas in the world (Figure 4 and 5). However, aboriginal people still managed to live in the boreal region through small scale of hunting, craft making, firewood gathering, and subsistence agriculture etc. (The Atlas of Canada, 2009). While ancient, old growth forest was a significant symbol of boreal forest, natural disturbance such as fire played a major role in its development. Fire not only stimulated the regeneration of plants, but also provided nutrient-rich ash for future growth. Large numbers of birds and fur-bearing animals, for example, bears, moose and caribou, called the forest as home but migrated during summertime and wintertime (Figure 6).

Figure 4: Historical Canadian Boreal Forest Landscape

Figure 5: Boreal Forest in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada
Source: Allan Harvey/Canadian Tourism Commission 

Figure 6: Migration of Caribou in Summer
Source: Getty Images

As industrialization started in the 1800s, the global and local demand for timber put a pressure on Canadian boreal forest. Forestry activities and depletion of forests gradually extended to the southern and eastern boundaries of boreal forest. The fur trade also negatively affected animal populations in the region. When commercial fur hunting took place, indigenous people altered their ways of life and focused more heavily on fur hunting, which led to a further destruction of wildlife habitats and a rapid decline of species (The Atlas of Canada, 2009; Figure 7). Over the last few decades, it is estimated that the numbers of caribou in Alaska and Yukon areas were reduced to 5,000 herds at its lowest point (Tesar, 2007).

Figure 7: Indigenous People Hunting Caribou

After the Second World War, along with the growing demand of paper products, existing pulp and paper mills expanded quickly and many new ones were built. Advanced technology and improvement in harvesting equipment such as mechanical skidders also increased the cutting efficiency (The Atlas of Canada, 2009; Figure 8). Since the 1980s, the method of clear-cutting has been practiced extensively in Canada. Evidence proved that 90 percent of logging in Canada was done by clear-cutting (NRDC, 2004), and about 10,000 km 2 of Canadian boreal forest was clear-cut between 1975 and 1999 (Nova Scotia Public Lands Coalition, 2006).

Figure 8: Mechanical Skidder Practicing Clear-cutting
Source: Silviculture at Stephen F. Austin State University


Still, deforestation is the biggest environmental issue in the Canadian boreal forest (Ruckstuhl et al., 2008; Figure 9). When one-third of the boreal forest in Canada is allocated to industrial development, less than eight percent of it is protected from logging (NRDC, 2004). As the world’s largest lumber exporter, over 80 percent of Canada’s forest products are exported to the United States. It is estimated that about one million hectares of forest in Canada are cut down annually (Berg et al., 2011; Table 1; Figure 10). In particular, an area of boreal forest almost as large as Delaware is logged in both Ontario and Quebec each year (NRDC, 2004). Statistics also indicate that one acre of forest is cut every 12.9 seconds in Canada (Inch in a Pinch, 1999).

Figure 9: Current Boreal Forest Landscape after Logging
Source: NRDC

Table 1: Forest Cover and Deforestation Rate in Canada from 1990 to 2010
Source: Mongabay.com

Figure 10: Logged Wood in Boreal Forest
Source: TreeHugger

Deforestation also arises as a result of the fast pace of urbanization. Boreal forests are partially or completely cleared up for mining, oil drilling, road construction, dam building, as well as hydroelectric development (Table 2 and 3). A current published research on human activities in boreal ecosystem, conducted by scholars Edward Johnson and Kiyoko Miyanishi, shows that the James Bay hydropower development project in Quebec (Figure 11) has exerted a strong influence on Canada’s boreal eco-zone. According to Johnson and Miyanishi, an area of 177,000 km2 of Canadian boreal habitat is flooded under the project. The construction of dams has also dramatically decreased the river flows and changed the natural discharge patterns (Johnson & Miyanishi, 2012). Water temperatures, sediment loads, and stream chemistry have been altered since the establishment of dams. A high amount of methyl-mercury contamination and accumulation negatively affects aquatic life and causes the sharp decline of fish populations (Borealforest.org, 2011). Additionally, these dams become the barriers for caribou and reindeer seasonal migration (Johnson & Miyanishi, 2012).

Table 2: Number of dams in Canada, 2003
Types of dams
Numbers of dams
Source: Environment Canada

Table 3: Use of dams in Canada, 2003
Hydroelectric Power Generation
Water Supply
Flood Control
Other purposes
Source: Environment Canada

Figure 11: Hydroelectric Plant in Quebec, Canada
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

The growth of boreal forest is also under threat from acid rain and global warming. The ever-increasing industrial activities and use of fossil fuel lead to acid deposition and precipitation, which can severely damage the tree structure and make them more vulnerable to diseases. After the attack of acid rain, trees are unlikely to survive: “they die and stand as gray skeletons against the sky” (Ritter, 2012; Figure 12). With the rising world temperature, it is predicted that the area covered by boreal forest would be steadily transformed into temperate grassland or forest and reduced by 50 to 90 percent in the not too distant future (TreeHugger, 2011; Internetgeography, 2009).

Figure 12: The “Gray Skeletons” in Boreal Forest
Source: Earthonlinemedia

Recently, government, timber companies, and domestic groups have recognized the degradation of boreal forest and started putting efforts into conservation. The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement was signed in 2010 between 21 forest companies (members of the Forest Products Association of Canada) and 9 leading environmental organizations for the purpose of protecting 76 million acres of boreal forest in Canada. The Canadian government also decided to develop strategies prohibiting clear-cutting and increase the numbers of national parks and protected areas in boreal forest. Since December 2004, 13 of national parks, including the largest national park, Wood Buffalo, have been established and located in the heart of the boreal zone (Sustainable Forest Management in Canada, 2012).


Despite the local joint efforts on protection, the Canadian boreal region is still in danger of exploitation and extinction. As economies boom and life standards improve, the global demand for wood and paper products continues to rise. Making up 29% of the world’s forest cover, with its high quality and rich wood fiber, boreal forest will continue to be the greatest primary source of forest products and industrial wood. Although the Canadian government has been actively promoting the sustainable uses of forest, laws, regulations, or restrictions on clear-cutting are rarely enforced. The timber industry therefore can keep practicing clear-cutting, which leads to further damage of the environment and loss of rare species. Following this tendency, it is expected that larger area of boreal forest would be removed, and more species endemic to the boreal forest would be endangered in the coming years.

Among different nations, Canada is the major country that relied heavily on hydropower (Chart 1). Since hydroelectric facilities can produce huge, low-cost electricity for half of the country, it is likely that more massive hydropower projects will be imposed in Canada (Chart 2). However, hydro dams can substantially lower the river flows and create flooding in lowland. Thousands of habitats will be lost due to the flood, erosion, river deposition, and mercury contamination. As the use of fossil fuel increases and greenhouse effect enhances, boreal forests will also be under greater threat from acid rain and climate change in the not far future.

Chart 1: Leading Hydropower Generating Countries in the World, 2006
Source: Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Chart 2: Number of Large Dams in Canada
Source: Canadian Dam Association’s register of dams (2003)


In order to improve the human-ecosystem relationship and interaction in Canadian boreal forest, sustainable development and conservation are the crucial steps. While promotion of sustainable forest management is good, it is more workable if the government also enforces laws, quotas, and restrictions on unsustainable use of forests, such as clear-cutting. Government can also limit human activities in the region by increasing natural reserve, protected areas, and publicly-owned forests. As Canadian boreal forest spreads across different portions of Canada, cooperation and coordination between governments become an important part for forest protection.

On the other hand, education is a tool that can raise public awareness of environmental issues in boreal forest. Through education, citizens hopefully will be more responsible for their acts, so they will try to reduce their use of energy and consumption of paper product. Some reactive approaches, such as restoration and reforestation with different native species can also be done after the deforestation in boreal areas. If the above methods can be effectively addressed, the pressure human put on boreal forest can be minimized.


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