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Spotlight: What we know about Canada’s boreal forest

Aerial photograph of Canada’s boreal forest

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In Canada’s boreal zone, resource development – forestry, mining, oil and gas, and hydroelectricity – is expanding into new areas. This activity puts to the test the resilience of the forests, lakes, rivers and wetlands that make up this ecological region and support large industries.

Canada’s boreal forest resources are nationally and globally significant. They are a major part of our cultural and economic wealth, and they are potentially an important contributor to a low carbon economy. Not surprisingly then, discussions about environmental stewardship of Canada’s boreal forest focus on how resource development and management are affecting the health and sustainability of boreal ecosystems.

A synthesis of boreal knowledge from 4000 scientific publications

Understanding natural processes and what drives change requires detailed scientific knowledge. With that in mind, more than 60 scientists with the Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada carried out a first-of-its-kind review and synthesis of more than 4000 science publications related to the boreal zone and ecosystems.

The goal was to summarize the current state of scientific knowledge about the boreal and make it available to those responsible for managing boreal ecosystems and natural resource development.

The conclusions of that large review are outlined in 11 papers, which together provide a comprehensive summary of the scientific evidence of the impacts of human development, resource use and climate change on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in the boreal zone of Canada.

Four questions framed the Canadian Forest Service review of current scientific knowledge about the boreal zone:

  1. What are the effects of resource management on boreal ecosystems?
  2. How do we know if the boreal zone and its ecosystems are healthy?
  3. To maintain a healthy boreal zone, how much of the zone do we need to protect?
  4. How can management practices in the boreal zone be adapted to climate change, and how can they help to mitigate it?
Forestry worker wearing a hard hat standing next to a stack of felled trees on the ground in front of lumber truck.

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Sound decisions and policies rely on sound scientific information

For Canada, the cumulative effects of human development and natural events on the boreal zone are a concern. Industries that extract resources (such as minerals, gas and wood fibre) can impact the health of the boreal forest and put at risk the very resources they rely on.

Scientific knowledge – such as that collected in the 4000-publication synthesis – provides the objective, factual basis needed to support decisions that will continue to maintain healthy and sustainable boreal ecosystems. And the more detailed the picture of Canada’s boreal zone can be, the better able policy-makers will be to work toward balancing the social, economic and environmental goals for the region.

Canadian forest scientists contribute to global boreal research efforts

Map of the global distribution of boreal forest.

Distribution of the circumboreal zone (Eurasia based on Lavrenko and Sochava 1954, Ahti et al. 1968, Denisov 1970, and Kurnaev 1990; North America is that of Brandt 2009).

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Canada’s boreal zone accounts for 28% of the world’s boreal zone. Other countries with forests and land in this zone include the United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and China.

Since 2012, the Canadian Forest Service has been working with the forest agencies and institutions of these other boreal nations through the Circumboreal Working Group (CWG). The goal of the CWG is to enhance collaboration, particularly in boreal science.

Canada is also involved with the International Boreal Forest Research Association (IBFRA), which promotes and coordinates fundamental boreal forest research by scientists and individuals from around the world. The association’s aim is to improve understanding of the role of boreal forest ecosystems in the global environment and how environmental change affects that role. The work of the IBFRA supports timely and policy-oriented research into problems that are too large or too complex for any single country or academic discipline to solve.

The subject of the IBFRA’s first scientific mission, developed with the CWG, is “Circumboreal Forests in the Global Carbon Cycle: Climate Change Impacts and Mitigation Options.”

Mitigating the effects of climate change on the boreal forest

Undertaking the IBFRA mission, 16 researchers from across the circumboreal region are now pooling their boreal knowledge, investigating similarities and differences. Canada’s contribution in this effort includes the boreal science synthesis. Several of the papers serve as a valuable basis for assessing whether results observed in Canada are similar to those seen in other regions of the global boreal zone.

The outcome of this multi-nation mission will be a science-based summary of options in the forest sector for mitigating the effects of climate change in boreal regions. Canadian Forest Service scientist Dr. Werner Kurz, who is the lead for Canada’s National Forest Carbon Monitoring, Accounting and Reporting System, is coordinating the development of this circumboreal synthesis.

The researchers involved in this initiative have already identified three themes for future scientific missions relevant to circumboreal cooperation: opportunities offered by new technologies; climate change impacts; and defining of primary forests.

Boreal forest research offers significant national and global benefits

As boreal knowledge increases both at the national and international levels, the improved insights are helping Canada’s decision-makers and policy-makers ensure our country’s boreal forests remain resilient and productive.

This knowledge will also help deepen our understanding of the contributions the boreal forest sector can make to meeting global greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and mitigating the rates of climate change world-wide.

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