This summer, there have been frequent heat waves across a large portion of the United States, which has increased the risk of droughts, fires, and general discomfort. The boreal forest, a distinctive ecosystem in the northern hemisphere and one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, has been affected by the heat wave as well.
The boreal forest provides many diverse ecosystem service values, such as culture, wood, and carbon storage, and makes up 30% of the world’s total wooded area. But species extinction, permafrost thaw, and a rise in fires are all consequences of climate change and periodic warming, and they all have the potential to significantly alter the global carbon balance. Researchers under the direction of S. Gauthier examined the importance and future of the boreal forest in a research published in 2015.
One of the least controlled forests in the world, the boreal forest is found in sections of Canada, Russia, and Alaska. Because of this, very little of it is cut for lumber. Only a few tree species, such as pine, larch, and tamarack species, can survive there due to the harsh conditions—frozen temperatures are present for six to eight months of the year.
The trees in the boreal forest have been able to grow undisturbed, accumulating significant amounts of carbon in their roots and trunks since it is not as intensively managed as other forests. The boreal forest is home to 20% of the carbon stored in forests worldwide. However, the permafrost, a subterranean layer of ice, rock, sand, and soil that is below freezing, is where the majority of the carbon is located. The world’s largest carbon sink is the permafrost layer.
The boreal forest is expected to see the biggest temperature change out of all the biomes with forests. By the end of the century, temperatures may rise by 11 degrees Celsius, which would be a significant change for an ecosystem that is often below freezing. So far, temperature changes have been up to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Although the boreal forest’s tree species are well adapted to cold climates, they could suffer in a warmer environment. Invasive forest pests like the Siberian moth or mountain pine beetle have the potential to expand swiftly and obliterate some tree species as they move further north.
These ecosystems rely on fire despite the chilly temperatures. Tree species like aspen and lodgepole pine need fire to regenerate. However, frequent and too numerous fires endanger the health and diversity of tree species. Frequent fire also poses a threat to the permafrost because it can result in underground fires that melt the permafrost and quickly release enormous amounts of carbon.
According to some experts, the boreal forest is already transitioning from being a carbon sink to a source of carbon, meaning it releases more carbon than it stores. This ecosystem’s long-term viability will depend on management that encourages carbon sequestration and fosters biodiversity.
The researchers argue that more research should be done on this distinctive ecosystem in the north: “Global discussions on sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation need to place a greater focus on this vast biome to support critical and timely action across the boreal forest.”