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Last great forest under threat, study finds

Aug. 26, 2009
Courtesy University of Adelaide
and World Science staff

The world’s last re­main­ing “pristine” for­est—the so-called bo­real for­est across large stretches of Rus­sia, Can­a­da and oth­er north­ern coun­tries—is un­der grow­ing threat, re­search­ers have found.

The sci­en­tists from Aus­tral­ia, Can­a­da and Sin­ga­pore are call­ing for the ur­gent pre­serva­t­ion of these wood­lands in or­der to se­cure bio­divers­ity and pre­vent the loss of this ma­jor glob­al “sink” for ex­cess at­mos­pher­ic car­bon di­ox­ide.

Boreal for­est at Ke­nai Na­tion­al Wild­life Re­fuge, Al­as­ka. (Pho­to cour­tesy U.S. FWS)


The bo­real, or north­ern, for­est com­prises about one-third of the world’s for­ested ar­ea and one-third of the world’s stored car­bon, cov­er­ing much of Rus­sia, Can­a­da, Alas­ka and Scan­di­na­via. 

To date it has re­mained largely in­tact be­cause of the typ­ic­ally sparse hu­man popula­t­ions. That’s chang­ing, say re­search­ers and co-authors Cor­ey Brad­shaw of the Un­ivers­ity of Ad­e­laide, Aus­tral­ia, and col­leagues.

“Much world at­ten­tion has fo­cused on the loss and de­grada­t­ion of trop­i­cal for­ests over the past three dec­ades, but now the bo­real for­est is poised to be­come the next Ama­zon,” said Brad­shaw.

“His­toric­ally, fire and in­sects have driv­en the nat­u­ral dy­nam­ics of bo­real ecosys­tems,” said Ian Warkentin of Me­mo­ri­al Un­ivers­ity of New­found­land in Can­a­da, anoth­er of the re­search­ers. 

“But with ris­ing de­mand for re­sources, hu­man dis­tur­bances caused by log­ging, min­ing and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment have in­creased in these for­ests dur­ing re­cent years, with ex­ten­sive for­est loss for some re­gions and oth­ers fac­ing heavy frag­menta­t­ion and ex­ploita­t­ion.”

The new work is pub­lished on­line in the re­search jour­nal Trends in Ecol­o­gy and Ev­o­lu­tion. Find­ings in­clude the fol­low­ing:
  • Fire is the main driv­er of change and in­creased hu­man ac­ti­vity is lead­ing to more fires. There is al­so ev­i­dence that cli­mate change is in­creas­ing the fre­quen­cy and pos­sibly the ex­tent of fires.

  • Few coun­tries are re­port­ing an overall change in the co­verage by bo­real for­est, but frag­menta­t­ion is in­creas­ing with only about 40 per­cent of the to­tal for­ested ar­ea re­main­ing “in­tact.”

  • Rus­sian bo­real for­est is the most de­graded and least “in­tact” and has suf­fered the great­est de­cline in the last few dec­ades.

  • Coun­tries with bo­real for­est are pro­tect­ing less than 10 per­cent of their for­ests from tim­ber ex­ploita­t­ion, ex­cept for Swe­den where the fig­ure is about 20 per­cent.

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The world’s last remaining “pristine” forest—the boreal forest across large stretches of Russia, Canada and other northern countries—is under growing threat, researchers have found. The scientists from Australia, Canada and Singapore are calling for the urgent preservation of these woodlands in order to secure biodiversity and prevent the loss of this major global “sink” for excess atmospheric carbon dioxide. The boreal, or northern, forest comprises about one-third of the world’s forested area and one-third of the world’s stored carbon, covering a large proportion of Russia, Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia. To date it has remained largely intact because of the typically sparse human populations in boreal regions. That’s changing, say researchers and co-authors Corey Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide, Australia, and collagues. “Much world attention has focused on the loss and degradation of tropical forests over the past three decades, but now the boreal forest is poised to become the next Amazon,” said Bradshaw. “Historically, fire and insects have driven the natural dynamics of boreal ecosystems,” said Ian Warkentin of Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, another of the researchers. “But with rising demand for resources, human disturbances caused by logging, mining and urban development have increased in these forests during recent years, with extensive forest loss for some regions and others facing heavy fragmentation and exploitation.” The findings are published online in the research journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The findings include the following: Fire is the main driver of change and increased human activity is leading to more fires. There is also evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and possibly the extent of fires. Few countries are reporting an overall change in the coverage by boreal forest, but fragmentation is increasing with only about 40% of the total forested area remaining “intact”. Russian boreal forest is the most degraded and least “intact” and has suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades. Countries with boreal forest are protecting less than 10% of their forests from timber exploitation, except for Sweden where the figure is about 20%.