Fires in the Amazonian and Boreal Forests: more reason to increase carbon storage in our Acadian forest by “proforestation” 26Aug2019

Curved arrows represent biologically mediated flows of GHGs: the straight arrow, industrial emissions of GHGs; and the symbols at bottom right, long term sequestration of carbon in the oceans. Carbon dioxide is the most important GHG in relation to forestry.

It’s so convenient, sometimes,  to point the finger elsewhere. Recently  I read that “Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron agree: Amazon wildfires are an ‘international crisis’ (Global News, Aug 22, 2019)

Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let’s discuss this emergency first order in two days! – Tweet by Emanuel Macron, re-tweeted by Justin Trudeau

I wonder whether Mr. Trudeau  is aware that Canada’s Boreal Forest, once called (with boreal forest in Russia) the ‘northern lungs of the world’ (CBC News, 2002)

Boreal forests in Russia and Canada are among the world’s biggest producers of oxygen and should be protected from industrialization, a Winnipeg conference was told Sunday.

Don Sullivan, head of the North American Boreal Forest Network, said his goal as host of the three-day conference was to stress the importance of keeping boreal forests healthy.

“We’re trying to send a clear message to the public that the northern lungs of the world is important to maintain, and keeping it a viable, sustainable, healthy ecosystem is not only important to us as Canadians, but it’s important to the world.”

… is so no more as “Hotter, larger fires [are] turning boreal forest into carbon source
– CBC News, Aug 22, 2019 ? (Net emissions of carbon also mean they are net consumers of oxygen.)

In fact, Canada’s forests have exhibited net emission of carbon every year since 2002, the year of that Winnipeg conference (view NRC).

The increased frequency of fire in the Amazonian forests is attributed largely to human  activity – notably farming, mining and drilling, while the increased frequency of fire in the Boreal forest (over a background of much higher frequency than in the moist forests of the Amazon) is attributed largely to climate warming itself. But industrial activities, including forestry, have also increased carbon emissions.

“We know that the more we impact the forest by changing it with various kinds of industrial activities, we may allow more of the carbon in the soil to be released,” Wells says. “The more industrial footprint we have on the landscape, the more we exacerbate the problem. – Jeff Wells, science and policy director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative cited in The Narwhal, feb 26, 2019

Read the federal webpages on the topic, and it’s hard to get at the impact of forestry in the boreal forest* on carbon release, e.g., it’s combined with farming, or lumped in with carbon uptake as forests grow;  even when it is acknowledged that forestry/forest products is a significant source of carbon emissions in Canada, it is said to be small compared to the effects of pests and increased fire frequency associated with climate warming.
*e.g. view this Discussion Paper by WCS Canada for some teasing apart of the arguments made by government and industry to justify big forestry practices  on the basis of their impacts on climate change.

How bad could it get? A big fear is that the large deposits of peat start to burn, setting off a strong positive feedback loop (fires release more carbon dioxide–>temperature increases—>more fires—>repeat), and then we could even lose much of our boreal forest altogether.

There is apparently some talk about trying to extinguish more of the northern fires that are normally allowed to burn until they extinguish naturally.

As well as being a daunting task,  such an approach  may not be that helpful as a means of maintaining these forests as a carbon sink: by suppressing the fires that would normally occur, the continued accumulation of combustibles could lead to even larger more difficult to control fires in the future.

The role of our Acadian Forest

Leaving aside these far too heavy thoughts and arguments about the degree to which human activity on the landscape has contributed to increased fires and carbon emissions in our boreal forest, what about our mixed Acadian forests?

Mid-to-late summer and early fall is not a nice time to have a forest fire in NS,  at least not when it has been as droughty as last few years. Then, forest fires   can burn deep in the ground, destroying regenerative rhizomes and root stalks and  seeds, and burning soil carbon; the fires can also simmer there  through the winter and reignite the next season.

The most common time for fires in NS, just before leaf out in the spring is not nearly so damaging, usually burning only the top millimeter or so of the soil,  and is easier to put out. So when I read about mid-to-late summer forest fires  in NS, such as that in SW Nova Scotia a few years ago, and just now about a fire at Panuke Lake, I am nervous.

Opening page for interactive map at illustrates the normally frequent fires across the boreal forest region, but not in NS

It seems that our  summers are getting hotter and drier, and we can look forward to more such nervousness. But given our position on the continent in relation to climate and weather patterns, it seems unlikely that we will go whole-sale the way of those western areas where increasingly massive fires through  the summer and into the fall are becoming the norm.

Given the importance attached to forests globally  to store existing carbon and an oft talked about  potential to sequester more carbon to mitigate climate change, surely the increased carbon emissions in the Amazonian and Boreal forests increase the value of managing forests in the normally wetter parts of the NA continent, – Nova Scotia being one of them – to maintain and increase existing carbon stores.

One of those management tools is to do nothing, just let them continue to grow and age, which has recently been described as “proforestation”:

Intact Forests in the United States: Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest Good
William R. Moomaw et al., 2019. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 11 June 2019
Climate change and loss of biodiversity are widely recognized as the foremost environmental challenges of our time. …The recent 1.5 Degree Warming Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies reforestation and afforestation as important strategies to increase negative emissions, but they face significant challenges: afforestation requires an enormous amount of additional land, and neither strategy can remove sufficient carbon by growing young trees during the critical next decade(s). In contrast, growing existing forests intact to their ecological potential—termed proforestation—is a more effective, immediate, and low-cost approach that could be mobilized across suitable forests of all types. Proforestation serves the greatest public good by maximizing co-benefits such as nature-based biological carbon sequestration and unparalleled ecosystem services such as biodiversity enhancement, water and air quality, flood and erosion control, public health benefits, low impact recreation, and scenic beauty.”

As well as benefitting carbon storage globally,  more profroestation in Nova Scotia would be good for NS by  increasing the amount of old forest biodiversity when so much of our old forests has been lost by clearcutting since the 1950s, and in a multitude of other ways (tourism, freshwater fish, water quality…) as we have heard again and again.

Like the feds and industrial forest  interests nationally,  foresters in Nova Scotia  like to talk about deforestation – saying we have very little, or aforestation* (creation of new forest on previously unforested land, e.g. farmland), noting increases in forest cover on abandoned farmland in NS since the early 1900s; but rarely talk about forest degradation, of which we have lots as a result of the intensive clearcutting since the late 1950s/early 1960s. Proforestation  can reverse the effects of such forest degradation.
*E.g., from the feds “The rate of deforestation in Canada is among the lowest in the world and the forest industry is legally bound to reforest all logged areas”. Although a federal scientist was lead author for  key paper on forest degradation, it is not highlighted as a concern about Canadian forestry, rather the more detailed discussion of the topic on the NRC website is focussed on developing countries. For the NSDNR perspective as it stood in 2017, see their response to Question 1. from the Halifax Field Naturalists.

At least we should be doing the appropriate carbon accounting. When we make decisions about harvesting our forests, we should compare the carbon balances over time associated with harvesting and production of the related forest products, with those when the forest is simply allowed to continue to grow, making  such comparisons at both the landscape and stand levels.

Even if we do such accounting,  perhaps Nova Scotians will still feel that  jobs and corporate profits associated with industrial forestry   trump any benefits from reduced harvesting. Fair enough, I guess.

But perhaps we won’t. Perhaps there is a compromise, such as Dale Prest’s proposals for “climate forests”. (We are having a hard time accepting such an approach even on one leg of the Triad under the Lahey recommendations while business as usual would be intensified on another leg.)

But without good science and clear, objective and transparent accounting, we really don’t know the full consequences of our choices.

Nor are Mr. Trudeau and other politicians in Ottawa and Nova Scotia as well informed as they should be.


Subsequent to starting this post, I read that the populist Brazilian Government is sending troops to put out fires in the Amazon. Evidently international pressure is having some effect, and it is suggested that the international community should help out.

This would not be the first time.

Brazil’s recently [1990] elected President Fernando Collor de Mello announced the elimination of subsidies to farmers that have encouraged deforestation in the Amazon. Moreover, he appointed the outspoken Jose Lutzenberger to head IBAMA, Brazil’s new environmental protection agency.  With the aid of satellite photos, five helicopters, and sixty trucks, IBAMA agents have sought out illegal fires and issued millions of dollars in fines. Their efforts contributed to a dramatic decline in deforestation. While 8 million hectares were burned in 1987, only 4.8 million were reported burned in 1988. Preliminary figures indicate a fifty percent decrease in deforestation in 1989 SOURCE

Lutzenberger also ” made a precedent-setting announcement that the country would consider preserving forests if foreign countries paid for it.” (SOURCE)

I  met Jose Lutzenberger in Brazil in the early 1980’s; we had common interests in ‘biological agriculture’ as “organic agriculture” was called at the time, particularly in the effects of  fertilizers on pests. Circa 1988 or so he visited Canada and Nova Scotia and I asked him to talk to a large undergraduate class I taught on “Terrestrial Diversity”.

Lutzenberger was concerned then about the state of the Amazon forest and its significance for climate change. But what really opened eyes was his contention that the clearcutting he had seen in Cape Breton and elsewhere in Canada was worse than anything in the Amazon.

There was an article in a newspaper of the time to the effect “Canada, Amazon of the North” I looked for it in my “archives”, and couldn’t find it, but I did find this: a lengthy article in the Chronicle Herald on the 1984 Royal Commission on Forestry in Nova Scotia*. It reads distressingly like much of the Bancroft and Crossland (2010) and Lahey (2018) reports
*The Report of the Nova Scotia Royal Commission on Forestry. 10 page supplement in the Chronicle herald/The Mail-Star Monday Dec 17, 1984

With 12 or now 11 years at most to finally do something about climate change, are are we still rearranging the deck chairs..?

More links

Added Sep 6, 2019: The Amazon’s forest fires are a global peril – but so are Canada’s

As Amazon Burns, Canada’s Boreal Forest Also Faces Serious Threats
By Samantha Beattie in the Huffington Post Aug 31, 2019

Carbon in Canada’s boreal forest — A synthesis.
Kurz, al., 2013. Environmental Reviews 21(4):260-292.
This summary of the scientific literature outlines the current understanding about the role of Canada’s managed boreal forests in exchanging carbon with the atmosphere. In years with low disturbances by fires and insects these forests remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, but in years with many disturbances they release more carbon. The single biggest threat to carbon stored in these forests is human-caused climate change. Large amounts of carbon have accumulated in the litter and soil of the boreal because decomposition is limited by cold temperatures. Increases in temperatures and disturbances that kill trees could result in large carbon releases during the remainder of this century and beyond. In some regions this process has already started. Uncertainties about the impacts of global change remain high with some processes increasing the carbon removal and others the carbon release. Because the net balance of these changes in processes strongly affects Canada’s balance of greenhouse gas emissions, ongoing monitoring and research on the forests’ response to the impacts of climate change is important.

Increasing wildfires threaten historic carbon sink of boreal forest soils
KJ Walker  et al., 2019. Nature  572:  520–523
Boreal forest fires emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere primarily through the combustion of soil organic matter. During each fire, a portion of this soil beneath the burned layer can escape combustion, leading to a net accumulation of carbon in forests over multiple fire events. Climate warming and drying has led to more severe and frequent forest fires  which threaten to shift the carbon balance of the boreal ecosystem from net accumulation to net loss1, resulting in a positive climate feedback. This feedback will occur if organic-soil carbon that escaped burning in previous fires, termed ‘legacy carbon’, combusts. Here we use soil radiocarbon dating to quantitatively assess legacy carbon loss in the 2014 wildfires in the Northwest Territories of Canada. We found no evidence for the combustion of legacy carbon in forests that were older than the historic fire-return interval of northwestern boreal forests. In forests that were in dry landscapes and less than 60 years old at the time of the fire, legacy carbon that had escaped burning in the previous fire cycle was combusted. We estimate that 0.34 million hectares of young forests (<60 years) that burned in the 2014 fires could have experienced legacy carbon combustion. This implies a shift to a domain of carbon cycling in which these forests become a net source—instead of a sink—of carbon to the atmosphere over consecutive fires. As boreal wildfires continue to increase in size, frequency and intensity7, the area of young forests that experience legacy carbon combustion will probably increase and have a key role in shifting the boreal carbon balance.

Long-term pattern and magnitude of soil carbon feedback to the climate system in a warming world.
J. M. Melillo et al., 2017. Science, 358 (6359): 101 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2874
View Summary in Science News “After 26 years, the world’s longest-running experiment to discover how warming temperatures affect forest soils has revealed a surprising, cyclical response: Soil warming stimulates periods of abundant carbon release from the soil to the atmosphere alternating with periods of no detectable loss in soil carbon stores. The study indicates that in a warming world, a self-reinforcing and perhaps uncontrollable carbon feedback will occur between forest soils and the climate system, accelerating global warming.”

Canada’s forests haven’t absorbed more carbon than they’ve released since 2001
Sarah Lawrynuik in The Narwhal, May 7, 2019

Climate change impacts on forests
NRC, and subsections

Quantifying the impacts of human activities on reported greenhouse gas emissions and removals in Canada’s managed forest: conceptual framework and implementation
W.A. Kurz et al., 2018 Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 2018, 48(10): 1227-1240

In, Feb 25, 2019.

“Canada should do as much as we can to sequester carbon naturally,” said Canadians for Clean Prosperity Executive Director Mark Cameron, a former policy advisor to then-prime minister Stephen Harper. And “we should take advantage of our forests, our wetlands.” But “it doesn’t mean that, because we have a lot of forest, we don’t have to worry about carbon emissions, which is often the line that people use.”

In a post last year for Policy Options, he added that “by switching to one of the alternative accounting methodologies for emissions from land use, forestry, and forest products allowed under the framework, Canada could narrow the gap—perhaps by as much as 63 or 126 megatonnes—even if our actual emissions don’t change.”

An Operational Framework for Defining and Monitoring Forest Degradation
Ian D. Thompson et al. 2013. Ecology and Society VOL. 18, NO. 2 > Art. 20. The lead author (I.D. Thompson) is with the Canadian Forest Service. From the abstract. “Forest degradation is broadly defined as a reduction in the capacity of a forest to produce ecosystem services such as carbon storage and wood products as a result of anthropogenic and environmental changes. The main causes of degradation include unsustainable logging, agriculture, invasive species, fire, fuelwood gathering, and livestock grazing. Forest degradation is widespread and has become an important consideration in global policy processes that deal with biodiversity, climate change, and forest management. There is, however, no generally recognized way to identify a degraded forest because perceptions of forest degradation vary depending on the cause, the particular goods or services of interest, and the temporal and spatial scales considered. Here, we suggest that there are types of forest degradation that produce a continuum of decline in provision of ecosystem services, from those in primary forests through various forms of managed forests to deforestation. Forest degradation must be measured against a desired baseline condition, and the types of degradation can be represented using five criteria that relate to the drivers of degradation, loss of ecosystem services and sustainable management, including: productivity, biodiversity, unusual disturbances, protective functions, and carbon storage

Nova Scotia forests, forestry and GHGs 2: Who accounts for the EU’s emissions from bioenergy generated from imported chips?
Post on NSFN July 27, 2018. “For chips from Canada, we do. Sort of. By not specifically addressing Land Use Changes associated with forest bioenergy in GHG accounting, industry and government avoid admitting that many of these schemes are net emitters of GHGs over timeframes meaningful for climate mitigation. There are signs, however, that the Europeans are recognizing serious problems with forest bioenergy sourced from North America.”

Time for Nova Scotia Government to come clean on forest bioenergy feedstocks 19Mar2019
Post on NSFN Mar 19, 2019.”The film Burned that is making the rounds in NS and elsewhere is NOT about forest bioenergy facilities for which most of the feedstocks are genuine wood processing wastes. It’s about forest bioenergy facilities for which most of the feedstocks are from clearcuts and are wreaking havoc upon forest biodiversity and forests’ storage of carbon. What’s the case in Nova Scotia?”

Are Protected Areas an Effective Way to Help Mitigate Climate Change? A Comparative Carbon Sequestration Model for Protected Areas and Forestry Management in Nova Scotia, Canada
Robert Cameron and Peter Bush 2016. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies 11: 1-13.
View related post on NSFN (May 26, 2017): Protected Areas in Nova Scotia help to mitigate climate change, clearcuts do not

And some final words from Jose Lutzenbereger:

We can always learn from our mistakes. But do we have a right to risk mistakes that have unacceptable and irreversible results?

A healthy civilisation can only be one that harmonises with and integrates into the totality of life, enhancing not demolishing it.

View his Right Livelihood Award Acceptance Speech, 31/12/1998.

Let’s hope it’s not to late to heed Lutzenberger’s words.

shopify analytics ecommerce

This entry was posted in Acadian Forest, Climate Change, Fire, Show Us the Science. Bookmark the permalink.