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.
Saving Canada's boreal forest is increasingly viewed as a global conservation priority. But until recently, the water resources of the boreal have garnered scant attention. This analysis (PDF) is the first compilation of decades of research on Canadian boreal water reserves from diverse sources.
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. These ecosystem services have an estimated $700 billion annual value (PDF).
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.
Canada's boreal waters also influence global climate. The wetlands and peatlands store an estimated 147 billion tonnes of carbon, more than 25 years worth of current man-made emissions, and the delta of the Mackenzie River alone stores 41 billion tonnes. 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.
Unfortunately, Canada's boreal forest is increasingly affected by large-scale industrial activities. The rapidly expanding development footprint already includes 728,000 km² (180 million acres) impacted by forestry, road building, mining, oil and gas extraction, and hydropower.
Thankfully, progress is being made. Pew's International Boreal Conservation Campaign works closely with Canadian and international environmental organizations, corporations and aboriginal First Nations to build support for the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, endorsed by 1,500 scientists around the world. The Boreal Framework calls for protecting a minimum 50 percent of the region's land and waters, and applying strict sustainable development rules on the remainder.
More than 12 percent of Canada's boreal has been strictly protected to date, through commitments from federal, provincial and First Nations governments, and support from industry and key stakeholder groups. More steps toward widespread adoption and implementation of the Boreal Framework are under way. Yet more must be done.