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How does disturbance shape Canada's forests?

Forest environments are dynamic, changing continuously through the effects of climatic variation and ecological processes such as forest succession, species migration, and interspecific competition. Wildfires, drought, windthrow, parasitism and disease, and other disturbances, while often more sudden or dramatic, are among these natural features of forest environments. Disturbances are increasing in frequency and magnitude as a result of invasive species introductions and climate change.

Managing forests for optimal resilience to disturbances has relied on forest practices derived from information about whole organisms and whole ecosystems. New tools are now available to advance forest management, allowing us to look at their natural genetic variation at the organism level. This lens offers unique insights on forest ecology, plant physiology, and long-term population trends and complements existing ecological knowledge. The natural genetic variation, viewed as “forest genetic resources” (FGR), provides a basis from which current and future resilience of forests can be drawn. These tools can help to project and monitor disturbances, promote forest qualities that reduce the impact of disturbances, and speed up the recovery of forests following disturbances.

Key sustainability indicators

Explore the report to find information on the key sustainability indicators:

  • Forest insects: Trends of forest area affected by insects across Canada. Monitoring forest area defoliated and damaged by insects is important to determine impacts to timber supply, the risk of fire, and the risk to recreational enjoyment and other forest values.
  • Forest diseases: Tracking information of tree diseases. This is an important indicator that helps us better understand undesirable economic, social and ecological outcomes, including regeneration failure, volume loss and tree mortality (download the annual report for further details).
  • Forest fires: Annual data on total area burned and number of fires in the last 22 years. Understanding forest fires in Canada is important as they are a natural part of the forest ecosystem and help maintain the health and diversity of the forest, but can also result in costly economic losses and provide public health and safety concerns.
  • Forest carbon emissions and removals: Estimated annual net carbon emissions in Canada’s managed forests. Monitoring carbon emissions is important as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) are important contributors to global warming.
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Forest insects

Forest area (in hectares) containing defoliated or beetle-killed trees for five insects in Canada, 2010–2020

Graph summary

This graph shows the trends in forest area, in hectares, defoliated by five forest insects from 2010 to 2020. The insects are spongy moth, eastern spruce budworm, jack pine budworm, mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle.

The forest area disturbed by the spongy moth remained relatively low until 2019, when it slightly increased to about 50,000 ha. In 2020, the area disturbed increased significantly to a decadal high of nearly 600,000 ha.

The forest area disturbed by the eastern spruce budworm increased steadily from about 1.5 million ha in 2010 to about 5.2 million ha in 2015. In 2016, the forest area disturbed dropped slightly to about 5 million ha, but then increased to almost 6 million ha in 2018. In 2019, it decreased slightly again to about 5.5 million ha, then increased to the 10-year maximum of nearly 7 million ha in 2020.

The forest area disturbed by the jack pine budworm remained relatively low from 2010 to 2015. In 2016, it increased slightly to about 200,000 ha, after which it continued to increase to the 10-year high of about 3.7 million ha in 2020.

In the last 10 years, forest area disturbed by the mountain pine beetle has continued on a downward trend, from a high of about 6.2 million ha in 2010 to less than 200,000 ha in 2020.

The forest area disturbed by the spruce beetle remained relatively low from 2010 to 2013. In 2014, the area disturbed increased to about 340,000 ha, then decreased slightly until 2017 when it increased again to about 507,000 ha. After a slight decrease in 2018, the area disturbed remained relatively stable until 2020 when it reached a 10-year maximum of nearly 530,000 ha.

Graph data

Table showing the area disturbed, in hectares, for five forest insect species: spongy moth, eastern spruce budworm, jack pine budworm, mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle for each year from 2010 to 2020.

Year Spruce beetle Mountain pine beetle Jack pine budworm Eastern spruce budworm Spongy moth
2010 66,267 6,251,586 44,968 1,510,074 0
2011 61,774 4,624,907 27,765 1,492,829 0
2012 43,195 3,016,228 61,018 1,792,062 8,128
2013 26,601 2,973,935 92,176 2,777,998 8,452
2014 336,396 2,208,687 26,356 3,583,700 23,335
2015 242,344 1,447,954 24,634 5,236,622 2,529
2016 291,972 376,669 206,850 4,973,225 0
2017 506,881 332,259 748,880 5,519,445 21,714
2018 343,758 318,796 1,185,431 5,992,213 14,932
2019 518,440 357,049 2,068,390 5,536,467 47,433
2020 528,154 189,600 3,666,496 6,983,518 583,157

Forest fires

Forest area burned and number of forest fires in Canada, 2000–2021

Graph summary

Between 2000 and 2021, the annual area burned was highly variable. The two years with the greatest area burned were 2014 and 2021, with over 4.5 million ha and 4.3 million ha, respectively. The year with the lowest area burned was 2020, with only about 220,000 ha burned.

Between 2000 and 2021, the number of forest fires was variable, ranging between the 10-year high of 9,800 fires in 2006 to a 10-year low of about 4,000 fires in 2020. In 2021, there were about 6,600 fires.

Graph data

Table showing the area burned, in hectares, and the number of forest fires for each year from 2000 to 2021.

Year Area burned Number of fires

2000

634,154

5,397

2001

647,669

7,762

2002

2,763,606

7,878

2003

2,168,405

8,270

2004

3,182,999

6,488

2005

1,686,769

7,452

2006

2,100,681

9,754

2007

1,785,465

6,919

2008

1,664,926

6,239

2009

762,566

7,145

2010

3,177,968

7,316

2011

2,397,425

4,678

2012

1,811,691

7,918

2013

4,268,503

6,256

2014

4,545,660

5,020

2015

3,908,382

7,034

2016

1,319,607

5,267

2017

3,589,431

5,658

2018

2,328,851

7,111

2019

1,786,215

4,062

2020

218,233

4,001

2021

4,307,520

6,596

Forest carbon emissions and removals

Net carbon emissions in Canada’s managed forests: All areas, 1990–2020

Graph summary

The net carbon emissions in Canada’s managed forest were 165 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2019, taking into account both human activities and natural disturbances. The trend in net carbon emissions from 1990 to 2020 is toward larger annual emissions, but with high annual variability. Canada’s managed forests were a net sink of carbon, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, from 1990 to 2001, with the exception of 1995 and 1998, when managed forests emitted carbon. From 2002 to 2020, taking into account both human and natural disturbances, Canada’s managed forests emitted carbon each year. The two highest emitting years were 2017 (about 230 Mt CO2e) and 2018 (about 260 Mt CO2e), and the lowest emitting year was 2020 (just over 5 Mt CO2e).

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed (in hectares) within Canada’s managed forest for each year from 1990 to 2020, with on average the area disturbed by insects making up the largest share of the area disturbed, followed by area of forestry activities, then by area burned, and last by area of firewood harvest. The total area disturbed varies between 2 and 16 million ha per year, with larger areas disturbed from 2001 to 2006, and smallest areas disturbed from 1990 to 2000 and from 2009 to 2013.

Graph data

Table showing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removals, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, in Canada’s managed forests for each year between 1990 and 2020. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide while a negative number indicated a net removal. The table also displays the area of forest disturbed, in hectares, for each year from 1990 to 2020 by four causes: 1) forest management, 2) wildland fire, 3) insects and 4) firewood harvesting.

Year Area disturbed (hectares) GHG net emissions (million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent per year)
Area disturbed by insects Area of forestry activities Area of firewood harvest Area burned
1990 4,138,137 964,912 249,569 238,786 -97.1
1991 1,741,332 909,069 229,270 551,793 -69.7
1992 1,056,544 1,002,548 269,933 93,938 -109.1
1993 1,109,601 1,011,541 291,824 603,082 -55.2
1994 1,955,172 1,047,232 281,217 480,474 -46.0
1995 1,752,335 1,099,053 249,606 1,981,858 134.7
1996 1,701,788 1,066,694 257,002 569,367 -36.4
1997 1,944,312 1,129,150 257,537 148,899 -78.9
1998 2,543,617 1,083,385 226,766 1,515,479 113.9
1999 3,590,615 1,227,568 237,443 558,726 -15.7
2000 3,572,741 1,264,001 203,776 87,116 -60.0
2001 7,620,861 1,192,228 174,265 208,948 -41.8
2002 9,801,379 1,279,407 201,475 1,107,949 91.3
2003 12,844,847 1,239,579 206,411 665,198 56.0
2004 7,137,706 1,391,887 276,961 940,765 149.2
2005 9,628,451 1,377,252 245,038 641,842 67.9
2006 12,047,466 1,257,202 260,078 653,315 81.9
2007 10,419,859 1,102,596 320,713 699,941 81.8
2008 8,137,031 972,590 336,399 351,341 30.5
2009 5,479,736 866,897 343,279 366,080 43.6
2010 5,547,405 1,056,274 330,760 926,762 109.5
2011 4,768,871 1,092,679 338,684 1,100,382 142.6
2012 4,316,866 1,072,065 363,326 895,604 106.9
2013 5,072,587 1,063,828 422,407 471,028 44.1
2014 7,318,383 1,139,603 470,997 1,276,866 164.8
2015 7,985,900 1,083,580 527,508 2,047,550 266.2
2016 8,168,309 1,107,768 486,198 741,053 100.5
2017 8,111,744 1,113,098 432,958 1,475,508 228.6
2018 8,277,481 1,102,220 442,448 1,424,064 265.9
2019 9,170,709 1,029,013 462,842 1,078,011 154.5
2020 13,617,848 1,033,269 454,760 131,485 6.4

Net carbon emissions in Canada’s managed forests: Areas subject to human activities, 1990–2020

Graph summary

Areas subject to human activities in Canada were a net sink of GHGs from 1990 to 2003. However, the size of the sink had been decreasing slowly from a sink of 70 Mt CO2e in 1990 to about 20 Mt CO2e in 2003. By 2005, these areas became a source of nearly 15 Mt CO2e, but then returned to a sink of nearly 18 Mt CO2e by 2009. Since 2010, areas subject to human activities have been both a source and sink of GHGs, but remain within a narrow range. In the last 10 years, the highest source occurred in 2019 with about 7 Mt CO2e, and the largest sink occurred in 2012 with nearly 5 Mt CO2e.

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed (in hectares) within Canada’s managed forest for each year from 1990 to 2020, with on average the area disturbed by low mortality insects making up the largest share of the area disturbed, followed by area of forestry activities, and last by area of firewood harvest. The total area disturbed varies between 3 and 13 million ha per year, with larger areas disturbed from 2003 (nearly 9 million ha per year) and 2020 (nearly 13 million ha). The total area disturbed follows a generally increasing trend until 2003, after which it decreases until around 2013, then increases again until 2020.

Graph data

Table showing the GHG emissions or removals, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, in Canada’s managed forests due to human activities for each year from 1990 to 2020. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide for that year, while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area for forest disturbed, in hectares, for each year from 1990 to 2020 by three causes: 1) area of forestry activities, 2) area disturbed by low mortality insects and 3) area of firewood harvest.

Year Area disturbed (hectares) GHG net emissions (million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent per year)
Area of forestry activities Area disturbed by low mortality insects Area of firewood harvest
1990 964,912 3,223,850 249,569 -69.9
1991 909,069 1,172,545 229,270 -73.5
1992 1,002,548 603,044 269,933 -61.4
1993 1,011,541 788,163 291,824 -53.7
1994 1,047,232 1,502,740 281,217 -50.4
1995 1,099,053 1,422,722 249,606 -34.0
1996 1,066,694 1,385,686 257,002 -39.6
1997 1,129,150 1,552,522 257,537 -40.0
1998 1,083,385 1,858,243 226,766 -50.8
1999 1,227,568 1,982,356 237,443 -35.5
2000 1,264,001 974,188 203,776 -20.7
2001 1,192,228 3,986,558 174,265 -36.0
2002 1,279,407 5,390,387 201,475 -17.7
2003 1,239,579 7,279,863 206,411 -21.1
2004 1,391,887 5,010,911 276,961 8.3
2005 1,377,252 4,797,767 245,038 14.2
2006 1,257,202 5,580,582 260,078 3.0
2007 1,102,596 4,157,517 320,713 -1.6
2008 972,590 3,365,454 336,399 -6.0
2009 866,897 3,381,918 343,279 -17.6
2010 1,056,274 4,032,485 330,760 -0.5
2011 1,092,679 3,569,873 338,684 -0.7
2012 1,072,065 2,977,909 363,326 -4.7
2013 1,063,828 3,633,666 422,407 -1.2
2014 1,139,603 4,681,761 470,997 -1.0
2015 1,083,580 5,847,998 527,508 5.3
2016 1,107,768 6,663,402 486,198 1.0
2017 1,113,098 6,186,190 432,958 1.1
2018 1,102,220 6,320,277 442,448 5.8
2019 1,029,013 7,720,787 462,842 -7.2
2020 1,033,269 11,221,356 454,760 -2.3

Net carbon emissions in Canada’s managed forests: Area subject to natural disturbances, 1990–2020

Graph summary

Since 1990, net annual GHG emissions that are due to natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests have been closely related to the annual area burned. As the amount of forest burned by wildfires varies widely from year to year, the trend in carbon emissions also varies, with large up and down swings over the span of a year or two. The lowest emissions were in 1992, with a net removal of carbon of nearly 50 Mt CO2e, while the highest emissions were in 2015, with a net emission of about 260 Mt CO2e. However, the graph shows an overall trend toward increasing carbon emissions caused by natural disturbances over time, until a sudden drop in 2020 to around 10 Mt CO2e.

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed by high mortality insects and wildfires within Canada’s managed forests from 1990 to 2020. The area disturbed by both causes is highly variable from year to year, with the area disturbed by high mortality insects making up the larger share overall. The total area disturbed is generally lowest from 1990 to 2000, then increases on average over the period of 2001 to 2008, then decreasing to mid-range values between 2009 and 2020. The total area disturbed by high mortality insects and wildfires peaked at about 7 million ha in 2006/2007, and were at their 20-year lows before 1998 at below 1 million ha.

Graph data

Table showing the GHG emissions or removals, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, in Canada’s managed forests due to natural disturbances for each year from 1990 to 2019. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forest, in hectares, disturbed by wildland fires and high mortality insects for each year from 1990 to 2020.

Year Area disturbed (hectares) GHG net emissions (million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent per year)
Area burned Area disturbed by high mortality insects
1990 238,786 914,287 -27.2
1991 551,793 568,788 3.9
1992 93,938 453,500 -47.7
1993 603,082 321,438 -1.5
1994 480,474 452,431 4.5
1995 1,981,858 329,612 168.7
1996 569,367 316,102 3.2
1997 148,899 391,790 -38.9
1998 1,515,479 685,373 164.7
1999 558,726 1,608,258 19.8
2000 87,116 2,598,554 -39.4
2001 208,948 3,634,303 -5.9
2002 1,107,949 4,410,993 109.1
2003 665,198 5,564,983 77.1
2004 940,765 2,126,795 140.9
2005 641,842 4,830,684 53.7
2006 653,315 6,466,884 78.9
2007 699,941 6,262,342 83.4
2008 351,341 4,771,577 36.5
2009 366,080 2,097,817 61.2
2010 926,762 1,514,920 110.1
2011 1,100,382 1,198,998 143.2
2012 895,604 1,338,958 111.6
2013 471,028 1,438,921 45.2
2014 1,276,866 2,636,622 165.7
2015 2,047,550 2,137,901 260.9
2016 741,053 1,504,906 99.5
2017 1,475,508 1,925,555 227.5
2018 1,424,064 1,957,204 260.1
2019 1,078,011 1,449,922 161.7
2020 131,485 2,396,492 8.8
Sources and information

See Sources and information in the downloadable report for detailed sources.

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