Earth’s Northern Crown At Risk: Our Largest Continuous Expanse of Wilderness Is Shrinking

Ty Emerald
By Ty Emerald

The boreal forests, Earth’s expansive band of greenery girdling the northern latitudes beneath the Arctic tundra, are witnessing a worrying contraction. Enveloping regions like Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia, these forests aren’t just majestic swathes of nature but also crucial environmental fortresses.

The boreal forests encompass the largest distance of wilderness on the planet.

Carbon Guardians in Jeopardy

The soils of the boreal region play a critical role in climate regulation by capturing and storing vast amounts of carbon, thus preventing it from warming the atmosphere. The sheer isolation of these areas has historically acted as a shield against the encroachment of human activity, preserving the intricate web of life these forests support, from mammals and birds to fish and insects.

These forests are globally acknowledged as vital ecosystems due to their carbon storage capabilities and biodiversity. For centuries, the understanding has been that climate dictates where plant communities thrive. The frigid winters and brief summers of the boreal zone have, until now, maintained the balance of this habitat.

A Shifting Climate and Shifting Forests

As the planet warms, these forests, along with their resident fauna, are being pushed northwards, seeking the cold refuge they require. Yet, this migration is patchy and lagging, while an alarming acceleration in their southern decline has been noted. Our observations, as researchers of these northern territories, point to a stark reality: the world’s largest forest wilderness is diminishing as global temperatures climb.

As the planet warms, the boreal forests, often described as Earth’s northern crown due to their encircling position just shy of the Arctic tundra, are seeing their dominion erode. These forests, composed of billions of trees, are predominantly needleleaf conifers, though dotted with broadleaf species such as birch and aspen. They serve as a sanctuary for millions of migratory birds and iconic mammals like brown bears, moose, and lynx.

Vital Carbon Reservoirs Under Siege

The boreal forest’s trees and the soils at their roots are pivotal in regulating the Earth’s climate. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which, if left unchecked, acts as a greenhouse gas. The carbon absorbed by these trees contributes to their growth and eventually to the carbon-rich soil that forms as they decompose after death. Substantial shifts in these forests’ health or coverage would, therefore, have direct implications for the global climate.

All forests store varying amounts of carbon. Forests in warm or tropical regions store more carbon in plants, while boreal forests, located in Northern cooler regions, have vast carbon stores in soil. Source: U.S. Forest Service

Rapid Climatic Shifts

The pace of temperature rise in these forests is outstripping the global average, directly impacting tree growth and survival and their crucial role in carbon sequestration.

Divergent Responses to Warming

In the boreal forest’s northernmost stretches, trees are beginning to thrive in what was once a freezing environment, with young saplings taking root in new, thawed soils. 

However, the story is starkly different in the southern boreal forests. Here, the warmer conditions are no longer conducive to the survival of these cold-adapted species, hampering their growth and accelerating mortality. Aridity, a companion of warmth, exacerbates their vulnerability, leading to heightened susceptibility to pests and fire. 

The devastating fires in Canada in 2023 and Siberia’s conflagrations in 2019 and 2020 bear witness to this growing threat.

The Uncertain Fate of the Forest Frontier

If the boreal forests could march northward and retreat from the south at the same pace, they might simply migrate following the warmth. 

However, our investigations, which synthesize satellite imagery and field observations, indicate that the situation is more convoluted, with the forests’ southern boundaries thinning and degrading at an alarming rate, signaling a retreat to cooler northern climates. 

The balance of this great green belt is being disrupted, signaling a profound environmental shift with consequences yet to be fully understood.

A Brown bear in the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. These bears are the largest and most widespread of all boreal (taiga) omnivores. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Satellite Eyes in the Sky: Monitoring Boreal Forest Changes

Advancements in satellite technology have become instrumental in tracking the changes within boreal forests, shedding light on their response to a shifting climate. These celestial observers provide a year-to-year record of forest dynamics, such as tree growth and coverage.

Our recent satellite data analyses from 2000 to 2019 show a trend of increased tree growth and cover in the boreal forest’s coldest northern regions. However, there’s scant evidence that these forests are pushing past their traditional boundaries into new territories.

Conversely, the data indicates a decline in tree growth and cover in the warmer southern areas. Hotter, drier conditions, combined with wildfires and deforestation, have reduced the tree growth or led to tree death in these regions. 

The satellite imagery paints a stark picture: climate change is leaving its mark on both ends of the boreal forest. If losses in the south outpace gains in the north, we may see an overall contraction of these critical forests.

Twenty years of satellite measurements indicate that plant growth throughout the boreal forests has increased along the cold northern borders, while growth along the warmer southern boreal borders has shrunk. Experts believe this is an early indicator that the boreal forest is beginning to migrate northward. Source: Logan Berner

Ground Truthing Satellite Data

To truly understand forest change, we must pair satellite data with on-the-ground observations. Boreal trees grow slowly, taking decades to become large enough to be seen from space. Documenting the emergence of young trees can signal the beginning of the forest’s march northward.

In the late 1970s, field studies recorded young spruce trees venturing into higher altitudes and further north than older, cone-bearing trees in Alaska’s Brooks Range. Decades later, those once-young trees have grown significantly, with a tenfold increase in young spruces found beyond the established tree line.

On foot, traversing the transition from Alaska’s boreal forest to the Arctic tundra, we’ve discovered thousands of young boreal trees sprouting up to 25 miles north of their traditional borders. These trees thrive in areas with deeper snow, which acts as a protective blanket against the severe winter cold. This phenomenon is partly due to the retreating sea ice, which leads to stronger winds that carry tree seeds further and more snowfall to safeguard the seedlings.

Facing an Uncertain Future

Our combined research confirms that boreal forests are adapting to warmer temperatures. Yet, the rapid pace of climate change may outstrip these trees’ ability to migrate northward, offsetting their southern decline.

Will the northern trees expand quickly enough to counteract the forest’s contraction? The answer remains unknown. It’s possible that the growth observed in the Brooks Range signals such an expansion. 

Another pressing question is whether the increased growth in northern boreal forests can absorb enough carbon to make up for the loss in the south.

Should boreal forests start to shrink, their disappearance from the southern edge will impact both wildlife and human populations. Millions, including indigenous communities, rely on these forests for their way of life and cultural significance.

Continued, meticulous monitoring of boreal forests worldwide, combining satellite data and field measurements, is vital. Only with this comprehensive approach can scientists begin to predict the future of one of Earth’s great remaining wild places.

Share This Article
Leave a comment