The Facts: Canada’s Boreal ForestThe extent of the North American boreal zone

Map 1. “The extent of the North American boreal zone.” 2009. Natural Resources Canada[1]

The Boreal Forest, the world’s largest land-based biome, takes its namesake from the Greek god of the North wind, Boreas.[2] The boreal forest is young by ecosystems standards having only developed since the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, with the northern migration of coniferous tree species.[3] However, in terms of its current biodiversity, the forest we know today emerged about 5,000 years ago.[4]

Representing over 25% of the world’s largest total area of wetland habitats, 29% of the world’s forest cover and 73% of its coniferous forest, spanning over continents and many countries, the boreal/taiga plays a significant role in the planet’s biodiversity and its climate.[5] This diverse forest is mostly made up of coniferous trees, though deciduous trees can be found within the stands that function as one of the world’s largest carbon reservoirs.[6]

In Canada the boreal region stretches 10,000 km and as one of the world’s greatest remaining forest, it provides a home to 85 species of mammals, 160 species of fish, 80 species of amphibians and reptiles, some 32,000 species of insects, and 400 species of birds that inhabit its canopy, lakes and wetlands.[7] It is also home to hundreds of First Nations communities, “80% of the more than 600 First Nations in Canada”.[8]

Of the 10,000 km of forest, Canada still has 91% of the forest cover that existed at the beginning of European settlement, however, we may be on the brink of the next major transition in the boreal forest as the region faces several threats, namely, climate change, pests, wildfires, logging and development.[9] With regards to climate change, some of the most dramatic increases in temperature in the world during the last quarter of the 20th century have occurred at the zone of latitude occupied by the boreal forest.[10] As temperatures continue to rise in this area, the boreal forest is at risk of transitioning into grassland, parkland and/or temperate forest thus introducing a significant shift in species type and population size in plants and animals.[11] Simultaneously the heat has spurred outbreaks of pests and forest-destroying plagues: the spruce-bark beetle, the mountain pine beetle, the aspen-leaf miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm, and the spruce coneworm.[12]

The region is also under direct threat of logging and development. Today only 12% of the forest is protected while over 30% has been designated for current or future development (logging, mining, oil and gas leases and other).[13] Logging has played a significant role on the boreal forest, with large swaths being harvested for lumber. While most companies in Canada remain under constraints to sustainably harvest timber and are certified by third parties, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, clear cutting is still practiced in large sections of the Boreal.[14] Thankfully, there is an ongoing effort to protect the Boreal Forest and in 2010, a historical agreement, entitled the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, was made between the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), 21 major timber companies and 7 environmental groups to protect 73.6 million acres of boreal forest in Canada.[15]

Quick Facts:

  • 53% of land in Canada is covered by boreal forest;
  • 25% of the world’s boreal forests lie within Canada’s borders;
  • Several million litres of water are absorbed and filtered every day;
  • 80% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water supply found in Canada’s boreal forest;
  • 94% of Canada’s boreal forest is publicly owned;
  • > 30% of boreal forest has been allocated to industry;
  • 90% of logging in Canada’s boreal forest is done via clear cutting, and
  • 30% of the boreal region is within a kilometer of a road[16]

[1] J.P. Brandt, The extent of the North American boreal zone. Environmental Reviews 17: 101-161. Doi: 10.1139/A39-004

[2] Hans Meltofte, Henry P. Huntington and Tom Barry, Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA) 2013: Introduction (Akureyri, Iceland: Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, 2013), 11.

[3] Susan Zwinger, “Trouble in the Boreal Forests,” Backpacker 144 (1995): 62.

[4] F. Stuart Chapin et al., eds., Alaska’s Changing Boreal Forest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 97.

[5] Jeffrey Wells, A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, The World’s Waterkeeper (Seattle, WA: Pew Environment Group & International Boreal Conservation Campaign, 2011), 12; Eric S. Kasischke and Brian J. Stocks, eds., Fire, Climate Change, and Carbon Cycling in the Boreal Forest. (New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012), 49.

[6] J.S. Bhatti et al., “Carbon Balance and Climate Change in Boreal Forests” in Towards Sustainable Management of the Boreal Forest ed. Philip Joseph Burton (Ottawa: NRC Research Press, 2003), 817.

[7] Faculty of Natural Resources Management, Lakehead University, “Educational Resources: The Virtual Forest,” accessed June 1, 2015. http://www.borealforest.org/edresc.htm; Neil Osborne and Lindsay O’Reilly, “CG In-depth: Just the Facts: Canada’s Boreal Forest,” Canadian Geographic January/February (2004), accessed June 1, 2015, http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/jf04/indepth/justthefacts.asp

[8] National Round Table of the Environment and Economy (Canada) – Boreal Forest Program Task Force. Boreal Futures: Governance, Conservation and Development in Canada’s Boreal (Ottawa: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, 2005), 14.

[9] Chapin, F. Stuart et al. Alaska’s…, 97; Suzanne Wetzel, Luc C. Duchesne and Michael F. Laporte, Bioproducts from Canada’s Forests: New Partnerships in the Bioeconomy (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006), 211; Canadian Forest Service, The State of Canada’s Forests: The Boreal Forest (Ottawa: Natural Resources Canada, 2005), 40-41.

[10] J.S. Bhatti, “Carbon Balance…”, 801.

[11] Ibid, 804.

[12] International Arctic Science Committee, “Climate Change and Insects as a Forest Disturbance in the Arctic” in The Encyclopedia of Earth ed. Sidney Draggan. Last modified May 7, 2012. http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/151228/

[13] The Canadian Press. “Canada Boreal Forest Protection Expanded in 2013 but Concerns Remain”. Last modified January 5, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-boreal-forest-protection-expanded-in-2013-but-concerns-remain-1.2484843; Boreal Songbird Initiative, “Boreal Forest: Threats to the Forest”, accessed June 1, 2015, http://borealbirds.org/threats-canadian-boreal-forest

[14] Forest Stewardship Council Canada Working Group, “National Boreal Standard,” last modified: August 6, 2004, https://ca.fsc.org/preview.national-boreal-standard.a-822.pdf, 17, 32, 58, 61, 72, 103; Natural Resources Canada, “Harvesting in the Boreal Forest,” last modified December 11, 2013, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/video/13567

[15] The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, “Highlights of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement,” accessed June 1, 2015, http://cbfa-efbc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/CBFAAgreement_Highlights_NewLook.pdf

[16] Neil Osborne, “CG In-depth…”.


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