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What are boreal forests, and how can we protect them?

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Dronephoto by Anders Andersson.

To learn more, follow our live coverage from the 26th IUFRO World Congress in Stockholm, Sweden, from 23–29 June.

Cold, inhospitable and less celebrated than their tropical cousins, boreal forests are one of the world’s most oft-forgotten biomes.

These evergreen zones of coniferous trees form a ring around the North Pole and occupy vast swathes of sparsely inhabited land at the Earth’s northern latitudes.

In fact, they represent the largest terrestrial biome on the planet, covering around 17 percent of the world’s land area.

But what are boreal forests exactly – and why is it so crucial that we protect them against the growing threats that they face?

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of the Earth’s land surface area is boreal forest.

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Boreal forest, also known as snow forest or taiga, is a biome consisting of deciduous trees and conifers, primarily pines, spruces and larches.

Found in the northern parts of Eurasia and North America, it spans much of Scandinavia, Russia, and Canada, as well as parts of the U.S., Iceland, Scotland, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Japan.

Boreal forests are typically found in subarctic climates, characterized by long, bitterly cold winters, short growing seasons and low precipitation. Mean temperatures range between roughly 5 and -10 degrees Celsius.

At their northern boundaries, boreal forests gradually merge into tundra, while to the south, they give way to deciduous broad-leaved transition forests.

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Map and photos by various contributors1

Why are boreal forests important?

Boreal forest is often considered one of the least biodiverse biomes on the planet thanks to millions of the same trees dominating the landscape.

Yet it’s no less important than its temperate and tropical counterparts, providing habitat for a range of fauna in the high-latitude zone just below the Arctic Circle, including reindeer, wolverines, lynx, beavers, brown bears and Siberian tigers.

Due to freezing temperatures for up to six months of the year, many boreal forests are situated on multiple layers of biomass that is frozen all year round. This ‘permafrost’ is one of the largest carbon sinks on Earth.

Boreal forests also offer a range of ecosystem services: they regulate the climate through the exchange of energy and water, and they supply food and medicines for people who live in and around them, including Indigenous Peoples.

They also provide vast economic opportunities, with more than 33 percent of lumber and 25 percent of paper on the export market originating from boreal regions, according to the International Boreal Forest Research Association.

What are some of the challenges facing boreal forests?

Unfortunately, the boreal forest biome faces a range of threats to its survival.

In Canada and Alaska, for example, habitats are being degraded or lost through industrial forestry, mining, oil and gas projects and large hydropower facilities, as well as the building of new roads and other infrastructure, according to a 2020 study.

The boreal forest is experiencing major impacts on its fauna, including wild bears, wolves, reindeer and caribou, all of which are seeing their habitats disappear as the treed area shrinks due to the climate crisis and unsustainable land use.

In Scandinavia, reindeer migration routes depend on old-growth boreal forests, which provide cooling shade and relief from mosquitoes in the summer. These ecosystems are especially vital to the Indigenous Sámi people, who traditionally earn their livelihoods through reindeer herding.

But intensive forestry methods used since the 1950s have led to a 71 percent decline in ground lichen, the reindeer’s primary source of food, says Karin Nutti Pilflykt, a forestry advisor at the Saami Council.

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Coastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying active layer on the Arctic Coastal Plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. Credit: Brandt Meixell, USGS.
Permafrost thawing causes disturbances to the soils. This photo has been taken during the 2014 study of UBC Geography on Forsheim Peninsula, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada. Photo by A. Cassidy, UBC Geography. Flickr.
A collapsed block of ice-rich permafrost along Drew Point, Alaska. Wikimedia.
In Noatak National Preserve, Alaska, an exceptionally warm summer in 2004 triggered this 300m long slump associated with thawing permafrost. NPS photo. Wikimedia.
Thawing permafrost in Herschel Island, 2013. Wikimedia.

In the NunatuKavut Inuit territory in Canada’s Labrador region, the population of the migratory caribou herd declined from an estimated 385,000 in 2001 to just 5,500 in 2018 – a development monitored by local Inuit people.

The climate crisis is exacerbating these problems, especially as temperatures are rising much faster in the boreal zone – including its forests – than the global average.

In fact, warmer conditions are already causing the biome to contract. According to a 2023 analysis, North American boreal forests have shifted northward over the past two decades, but losses at their southern boundary have exceeded gains in the north.

of land-based carbon deposits are sequestered in boreal forests

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In Canada, higher temperatures are also creating ideal climactic conditions for the survival and spread of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), which has wreaked havoc in forests, according to a 2018 study.

Most importantly, boreal forests are threatening to turn into a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The climate crisis is causing wildfires to become more frequent and more intense. As a result, boreal forests have been releasing increasing levels of carbon dioxide over the past two decades, reaching a record high in 2021.

Higher temperatures and drier conditions are also causing faster thawing of the region’s permafrost, which stores more carbon than has ever been released by humans through the burning of fossil fuels. Up to 40 percent of the Earth’s land-based carbon deposits are currently sequestered in boreal forests.

Made with Flourish

With so much at stake, boreal forests could use the skills and know-how of the people who managed them effectively for centuries.

Research has shown that Indigenous Peoples are the best guardians of forests in many parts of the world.

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Protecting the vast forests is vital to tackling the climate crisis, and findings suggest that recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their land is one of the most cost-effective actions

Nutti Pilflykt of the Saami Council

But deforestation, industrial activity, mining projects and the climate crisis have had devastating effects on their traditional stewards, including the Sámi people, whose livelihoods and culture are threatened both by the forest’s demise and a lack of self-determination at the national level.

“Protecting the vast forests is vital to tackling the climate crisis, and findings suggest that recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their land is one of the most cost-effective actions,” says Nutti Pilflykt of the Saami Council.

Self-determination would enable the Sámi to participate more actively in land use planning processes, ensuring that forestry policies prioritize conservation, restoration and sustainability over short-term economic gains, she says.

Ironically, today’s green transition is also encroaching on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose land is often used to extract the critical minerals and metals needed for sustainable technologies like batteries for electric vehicles.

“We can’t just mine our way out of the climate crisis,” says Nikki Skuce, director of the Northern Confluence Initiative, which calls for land use decisions that respect Indigenous rights and protect biodiversity in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

“Instead of using the urgent transition away from fossil fuels as an opportunity to mine more and more, we should be reevaluating our production and consumption of energy and minerals,” she says.

“We can’t replace every combustion engine with an electric vehicle – we just don’t have the materials globally to do that.”

Skuce believes it’s crucial to reform the way that mining is done in the province, supporting Indigenous-led conservation and sovereignty and ensuring British Columbia meets its biodiversity targets, to help slow the decline of its boreal forest.

How can we protect boreal forest?

So, what’s being done to prevent a further decline of the boreal forest biome?

In Canada, scientists have been working to identify areas that might be especially vulnerable to the climate crisis. With this information, forest managers and provincial agencies can develop adaptation and mitigation strategies such as planting broadleaf tree species, which are far less prone to wildfires than their coniferous counterparts.

Indigenous groups, such as Yukon First Nations Wildfire, the Innu Nation in Labrador and Prince Albert Grand Council in Saskatchewan, are leading the way by sharing their skills and knowledge to help develop more effective firefighting methods and prevention strategies for boreal forests.

Indigenous Guardians programs are also receiving increased federal funding to restore flora and fauna, manage protected lands and conduct research on climate impacts.

Meanwhile, Indigenous governments across Canada are leading land-protection initiatives to establish Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs).

“We continue to support a pathway for provincial recognition of the IPCAs,” says Skuce of Northern Confluence. “One of the barriers to new conserved areas is the cost of buying out forest and mineral tenures. We are advocating for reforms to the province’s mineral compensation regime for retiring claims as IPCAs are recognized.”

Through these engagements, the Saami Council actively contributes to shaping EU policies and directives, ensuring that the perspectives and needs of the Sámi people are represented and considered in decisions on forestry and biodiversity

Nutti Pilflykt of the Saami Council

In 2023, a milestone agreement was reached for a major Indigenous-led initiative designed to protect and sustain lands while supporting community economic development across Canada’s Northwest Territories, home to 17 percent of the country’s boreal forest.

In the European Union, the Saami Council has been contributing to key bodies and legislation, such as the Biodiversity Platform, the Habitats Directive and the Coordination Group for Biodiversity and Nature (CGBN).

Within the CGBN expert group, the Saami Council helped draft guidelines for closer-to-nature forest management and for old growth forests, according to Nutti Pilflykt.

“Through these engagements, the Saami Council actively contributes to shaping EU policies and directives, ensuring that the perspectives and needs of the Sámi people are represented and considered in decisions on forestry and biodiversity,” she says.

Several initiatives are under way in Sápmi, the region traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people that spans parts of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland and northwestern Russia.

Boreal forests in Rovaniemi, located in Finland at the "gate to the Arctic" on the Arctic circle at 66.6' degrees North. Photo via GRID-Arendal resources library by Peter Prokosch.
Boreal forest wilderness in McQuesten River valley in central Yukon Territory, Canada. Via envato.
Larch forest close to the tree line (Taiga/Tundra boundary) in Southern Taymyr, Northern Siberia, Russia. Photo from the GRID-Arendal resources library by Peter Prokosch.
Taiga near Sheregesh, Russia. Photo by Roman Purtov, Unsplash.
Boreal forests in Björnlandet national park near Lycksele, Sweden. Photo by Jonathan Lange, Flickr.

One example is the Mähttse project, which promotes cooperation between reindeer herding districts and local actors within a specific geographical area. Nutti Pilflykt says this collaboration aims to promote the sustainable use of natural resources and to preserve traditional Sámi ways of life.

In Finland, initiatives have also focused on mapping and protecting old-growth forests in Sápmi. By identifying and documenting these areas, Sámi people are preserving crucial biodiversity and securing habitats for many species, including those significant to their culture and livelihoods, such as reindeer.

And in British Columbia, the Northern Confluence Initiative supported the Gitxaala people in their successful legal challenge of the Mineral Tenure Act, which has changed little since the 1850s gold rush era, according to Skuce. Mining activity is still given priority over virtually all other land uses in the province, she says.

“Now that the government has until March 2025 to reform the way mineral claims are staked in this province, we are engaging our members through the BC Mining Law Reform network to address broader issues of mineral exploration and support Indigenous demands for free, prior and informed consent,” Skuce says.

Text by: David Henry

Graphics and design by: Inês Mateus

Produced by: Eden Flaherty

1Map of boreal regions by Mark Baldwin-Smith. Inlaid photos, left to right: Cassiar Highway by Bruce McKay; New Post Falls by GeoCoker; Nain Labrador by Paul Gierszewski; Thjorsardalur National Forest, Iceland by Skogarpesi; Lynx in a Norwegian forest via envato; Reindeer by Steve Selwood; Winter landscape in Finland via envato; Björnlandet national park by Jonathan Lange; Taiga via envato; Siberian vista via envato.

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