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Boreal forests in wealthy countries being rapidly destroyed

Boreal forests in some of the world’s wealthiest countries are being rapidly destroyed by human activities — including mining, logging, and purposely-set fires — report researchers writing in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Assessing the status of the boreal forest that stretches across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia, Corey Bradshaw and colleagues found that less than 10 percent is protected, while about 60 percent is fragmented or degraded. The situation is the worst in Russia, which has “suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades compared to other boreal countries,” writes Bradshaw on his blog Conservation Bytes, adding that some 22 million hectares of Russian boreal forest burned in 2002 and 2003. Forests are also dying from outbreaks of pine mountain beetles, a consequence of warming temperatures. More than 13 million hectares of forest in western Canada have been affected in recent years.

Forest near Ketchikan

These changes are already having a significant ecological impact. 94 percent of the 348 of the boreal species appearing on the IUCN Red List are threatened with extinction, while fires and die-off are turning boreal forests — which contain 550 gigatons of carbon or 30 percent of Earth’s terrestrial carbon — into net carbon sources, worsening climate change, rather than helping mitigate it.

While damage from logging and disease is considerable, fire is the biggest threat to boreal forests. Without controlling fire, the authors conclude there will be little chance of saving these important ecosystems.

Bradshaw, CJA, IG Warkentin, NS Sodhi. 2009. Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.019

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