The boreal forest: Carbon sink in danger

Forests

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Large forests like the boreal in Canada function as a carbon sink that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and stashes it away. 

In fact, the boreal has functioned as a carbon sink for so long that if you burned all of the oil available in all the reserves around the world, you would still release less carbon than the boreal forest is currently holding. This stored carbon runs meters deep into the soil of the boreal forest, building up over time with each generation of dying trees. 

This is why it is so important to keep the boreal forest intact. 

Each year, clearcutting trees in the boreal forest releases more than 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Concerningly, these logged areas continue releasing carbon dioxide over time as the previously buried carbon gets exposed to oxygen.

Replanting a forest after clearcutting does not “cancel out” the emissions produced from logging. These baby trees do not pull carbon dioxide from the air at a fast-enough rate to make up for the clearcutting of older trees. 

Logging in the boreal will turn it from a carbon sink, a natural solution to climate change, into a carbon source, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

The logging of the boreal forest and release of carbon combines with another issue: global warming and the resulting wildfires. 

Climate change is causing the Earth’s northern regions to become drier, warmer and the result is a fire season that is longer and more severe than ever before. Devastating wildfires will burn down trees, creating a huge initial release of carbon into the atmosphere, but that’s not all. The oldest “legacy carbon” in the soil is also at risk of being released with these bigger and more frequent wildfires.

The aftermath of the intense 2014 wildfires in Canada’s Northwest territories.  

The aftermath of the intense 2014 wildfires in Canada’s Northwest territories.Photo by NASA / Xanthe Walker, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University

The warming climate and continued logging of the boreal turns the boreal forest into a carbon bomb, threatening to further warm the climate. 

Continuing to log the boreal will only produce more greenhouse gasses that will contribute to climate change, which will cause more devastating wildfires. Together, these factors will combine into a huge release of carbon dioxide, threatening to warm the climate more than the two degrees scientists have agreed is a critical threshold for life as we know it

Unless we act now. 

We need to stop logging the boreal forest, and maintain its function as a carbon sink. We cannot afford to turn it into a carbon bomb. 

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River running through green boreal forest with overcast skies

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Authors

Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.

Anna Larson

Environment America Intern