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A Forest of Blue

Canada’s boreal forest holds much of the world’s fresh water

The boreal forest in northern Ontario – photo by Forest Ethics, Garth Lenz.

They call it the Forest of Blue, and the world’s water keeper – the greatest single storehouse of unfrozen fresh water in the world. It’s not a lake, or a river. It’s a forest: the boreal forest of Canada.

This week is celebrated as World Water Week, and one of the greatest challenges facing not only humans but also all animals in the coming decades will be having enough fresh water.

To mark World Water Week, the Pew Environment Group has published a report on Canada’s Boreal, calling it the world’s largest intact forest, with more unfrozen freshwater than any other ecosystem.

As world leaders try to come to terms with the growing scarcity of clean water in hundreds of countries, scientists urge them in this report to understand that protecting the Boreal needs to become a global priority. They note, for example, that:

• The Boreal includes 25 percent of the planet’s wetland, millions of lakes and thousand or rives – more than 197 million acres of fresh water.

• The Boreal is home to half of the remaining populations of North American Atlantic salmon.

• It stores more carbon in its sediments that any other land source in the world.

The report warns that much of that carbon could be released into the atmosphere by the growing number of industrial activities that are invading the forest to cannibalize its trees, oil and natural gas, as well as damming up its rivers for hydro-electric power – much of this for use in the United States.

The sheer abundance of water in the forest can make it seem limitless. But the more we interfere with the forest, the more we are going to be releasing the carbon that’s stored in its peat lands and other areas, adding more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and accelerating the process of global climate change.

Water from the forest is critical to the survival of the arctic regions and the animals who live there.

The full report is available here. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Seen from above, Canada’s boreal forest shimmers on a bright summer day. Much of the surface of Canada’s boreal is comprised of countless lakes, rivers and wetlands. It is literally a forest of blue.

Stretching across the continent, Canada’s boreal is the most intact forest remaining on earth. It provides a vital bulwark against the global loss of biodiversity, irreplaceable food and cultural benefits to rural communities, and slows the impacts of global warming.

It contains half the world’s lakes larger than a square kilometer in size; five of the world’s 50 largest rivers; almost 200 million acres of surface water; and the world’s single largest remaining unpolluted fresh water body, Great Bear Lake.

Canada’s boreal contains 25 percent of the world’s wetlands and more surface water than any other continental-scale landscape. The extensive undammed rivers of the boreal serve as last refuges for many of the world’s sea-run migratory fish, including half of the remaining populations of North American Atlantic salmon.

Boreal wetlands such as these in the Northwest Territories are some of the world’s most significant storehouses of terrestrial carbon. Photo by Chad Delany for Pew Environment Group.

The wetlands and peatlands store an estimated 147 billion tons of carbon. The input of fresh water from boreal rivers to the Arctic and other northern seas is critical to forming sea ice, which cools the atmosphere and provides the basis for much of arctic marine biodiversity.

As world leaders grapple with the loss of biological diversity, water pollution and supply problems, and global warming, they should turn their attention to the forests, wetlands and waterways of the Canadian boreal. This global treasure must be preserved.