The Other Forest: The Disappearing Boreal Ecosystem

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Boreal Forest

The boreal zone is a vast expanse of contiguous forest that circles the globe at high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, roughly between 50 and 70 degrees north latitude. It consists primarily of coniferous tree species like spruce and fir, but some deciduous species like birch and beech can be found along creeks and rivers. Despite relatively low annual precipitation rates, the boreal forest is moist and humid. This biome is one of the most sensitive natural regions in the entire world, and several distinct trends threaten its very survival.

 

No Longer Protected

Because of its geographic isolation and harsh climate, endemic human populations are quite low here, and an underdeveloped transportation network has kept few tourists from encroaching on this vast biome until quite recently. This has changed, however, as commercial interests seek to exploit the boreal forest’s vast resources.

 

Commercial Logging

Like the tropical rainforests that straddle the equator, the boreal forest’s soils are surprisingly nutrient-poor. Unlike the more fertile mid-latitude temperate forests, where species regeneration comes easily, the boreal forest is a fragile ecosystem that does not tolerate wholesale disruptions like commercial logging. In Canada alone, over one million acres are lost to logging each year, mostly for the paper and furniture industries.

Some logging operations produce open, stump-covered areas of 20,000 acres or more, reducing the forest to rubble as far as the eye can see. It takes years for the boreal ecosystem to recover from such a wound, and during this recovery period it may be susceptible to invasive plant or insect species.

 

Mining and Hydrocarbon Extraction

Prices for raw materials and precious metals are increasing every day, making the resource-rich boreal forest more attractive than ever to rapacious mining companies. Many of the world’s most productive mines are found here. Unfortunately, many acres of forest must be clear-cut to make way for access roads in and out of the mine zones, and toxic runoff from local gold and silver production can contaminate local waterways, killing wildlife miles downstream.

Oil and gas extraction is even more devastating to the boreal forest. In the forest’s northern extreme, natural gas production requires digging deep into the permafrost, releasing prodigious quantities of methane that pollute the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. In parts of Canada, meanwhile, “tar sands” oil production requires major clear-cuts and pollutes waterways for thousands of miles around.

 

Climate Change

Although its primary causes are the large-scale industrial operations found at lower latitudes, climate change disproportionately affects the boreal forest and other high-latitude ecosystems. As the boreal forest warms and becomes more moist, invasive insect species have taken advantage of the longer frost-free breeding season to move north and devastate local plant communities. Warmer average annual temperatures also contribute to the widespread melting of permafrost, which releases greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere and further exacerbates climate change.

The boreal forest that circles the planet in Canada, Russia, Alaska and Scandanavia is one of Earth’s most important habitats and a tremendous engine for oxygen production. Unfortunately, its very survival is threatened by human activities like mining, oil extraction, commercial logging and climate change. Without international cooperation to outline acceptable uses for this environment, the boreal could soon go the way of the Amazon rainforest, reduced to a husk of its former self.