It is official; 2023 is Canada’s worst fire season on record (https://ciffc.net). This year, fires are burning massive swathes of trees and vegetation across the country, including in the Boreal Forest. Right now across Canada, people are losing their homes and cabins. Others are being evacuated to places far away, not knowing whether the flames will spare their communities from destruction. Many of our colleagues and friends are experiencing these hardships brought about by climate change. Instead of sending ARUs (Autonomous Recording Devices) for capturing bird songs this summer, we are sending our partners in Canada care packages and well-wishes.
Around the country, climate change is altering rainfall cycles and creating hotter and drier conditions, factors that increase the risk of more frequent and more severe wildfires. In a dynamic ecosystem like the Boreal Forest, natural disturbances such as fires and insect outbreaks are normal and help to regulate forest succession at large scales. But over time—as a result of climate change—the fires are happening earlier, are larger, more intense, and more frequent with smoke causing unsafe air quality conditions for folks as far away as Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh.
So, what does all of this mean for wildlife, including the billions of migratory birds who travel thousands of miles each year to breed and raise their young in North America’s Boreal Forest? Many animals living within the Boreal are very good at evading threats from these fires. Birds and some larger mammals, for example, can move quickly away from danger once detected, and smaller creatures like voles and snakes can burrow underground for safety. But as fires increase in frequency, size, and intensity, animals have less time to escape. So, even though birds and other wildlife have evolved to be resilient to a certain amount of disturbance, there may be a threshold for how much they can withstand. Unfortunately, there has been little research on exactly what happens to individual birds or their populations overall in these circumstances.
For those species already on territory or sitting on eggs, a large, hotly burning fire certainly destroys nests and eggs and kills adults who don’t quickly flee the flames. Later-arriving migrants, like some of those that make their way north from South American wintering grounds, may arrive to find the familiar home territory on fire or burned up. Presumably, they would move on to unfamiliar areas that had not been burned, places already crowded with others of their kind who would not welcome new neighbors.
Such dynamics happening over the millions of acres of forest that have already been burned by wildfire impacts millions of birds. It’s impossible, though, to know how many of each species are killed, how many nests and eggs are destroyed, and how much habitat becomes unsuitable for species dependent on more mature forests. It will be an important consideration for habitat conservation in the coming years, especially in the context of increasing pressures from both industrial development and climate change.
As we watch these fires expand and intensify, community safety, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss aren’t the only concerns. While the Boreal is home to people, birds, and an array of wildlife, it is also home to globally significant carbon stores. In fact, it holds billions of tonnes of carbon. These vast stocks of carbon lie within Boreal Forest trees, wetlands, peatlands, soils, and under permafrost. When wildfires burn, biomass carbon stored in trees and other vegetation combusts causing carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide to be released into the atmosphere. This means as fires increase, so do these harmful emissions.
Although a significant portion of the wildfires are human-caused in some areas (more on what causes wildfires here), fires are certainly not the only danger people pose in the Boreal. Clear-cut logging and large-scale industrial mining are also threats, having the potential to destroy entire Boreal ecosystems, negatively impact water quality, limit food sources for local people, and exacerbate negative impacts from climate change—including wildfires—on a global scale.
Protecting North America’s Boreal Forest is a critical part of solving the world’s climate change and biodiversity loss crises. Quickly reducing carbon emissions from industrial activities is urgently needed for so many reasons, including to change the trajectory of wildfire activity in the Boreal Forest. Ongoing support for Indigenous Guardians and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area proposals is also essential if the fast-approaching 30 x 30 goal (i.e. protecting 30% of lands and waters by the year 2030) set forth by the Global Biodiversity Framework is to be achieved (more on that here). By placing the Boreal’s carbon stores within protected areas, the threat from anthropogenic stressors decreases, allowing the Boreal to continue as one of the largest global carbon storehouses on the planet. At the same time, vital habitats for vast numbers of birds, fish, caribou, and other wildlife are conserved. Threats to people and their homes lessen. And Indigenous Peoples can steward the lands as they have within the Boreal for millennia, including wildfire management practices (more on that here).