Canada’s boreal forests are burning

And releasing loads of carbon.

 

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But most emissions from boreal fires don’t come from the trees at all – they’re released from the tundra-like peat that makes up the forest floor. The ground literally burns. A study conducted in Indonesia suggests that carbon released from peat fires can equal up to 40 percent of that emitted by global fossil fuels – and making matters worse is that soot from far-northern fires, like those in the Northwest Territories, can darken Arctic ice, making it melt faster.

Wildfire is an integral part of the boreal ecosystem – "the mechanism by which the forest is continually regenerated," says NASA physicist Forrest Hall. But a 2013 study of charcoal records published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows that lately, boreal fires have been burning at rates not seen for 10,000 years. Flannigan pins this firmly on climate change, and predicts that increased global warming will spur ever-greater fires in the boreal forests of Alaska, Canada and Russia by the end of the century. That’ll prompt a positive feedback loop in which more boreal fires leads to more global warming, and more global warming leads to more boreal fires.

Yet researchers elsewhere suggest that the deciduous growth that sometimes replaces boreal spruce and fir are less apt to burn than the ecosystem they replace, meaning fires in the taiga may become less severe over time. Either way, as fire sweeps the region, tourists in Yellowknife who'd hoped for a cool northern vacation are instead witnessing something more historic: the ecology of the boreal forest changing before their eyes.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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