Aurora Borealis. The northern lights. The frosted rim of northern lands below them, the living icebox of the planet.
All of the northern land masses, North America, Europe, and Asia, have significant expanses of land in the extreme north. The arctic circle, less than 2,000 miles from the north pole, passes almost entirely through land. The boreal forests ring the regions immediately south of this high latitude in a vast expanse that easily rivals the rainforest regions of the world in terms of sheer size.
Locked up in the Boreal Forests are vast amounts of carbon, and their biomass is so huge and so vital that when they are in their maximum growth phase during the northern spring and summer, the worldwide levels of carbon dioxide fall and the worldwide levels of oxygen rise.
The Boreal World has gotten a lot of attention lately. The September 4, 1995 issue of TIME Magazine featured a cover story entitled “The Rape of Siberia” which chronicles the wanton development occurring there since the fall of communism and the Soviet Union. The May/June 1995 issue of WORLDWATCH has a feature entitled “Cutting the Great Forests of the North.” These reports agree that deforestation is happening faster in the Boreal forests than in the tropical ones, but “Save the Boreal Forests” isn’t appearing on bumper stickers yet, and “Taiga Crunch” never made it to the supermarket shelves.
In order to properly discuss the issue of Boreal deforestation, the problem must be quantified. First use worldwide timber-mass doubling as a baseline for a quantitative framework. It is impossible to double the timber mass of the planet if we don’t know what the current timber mass of the planet is. And before we can do that we need to know what the area of forest land is, compared to the area of the land masses of earth.
HOW BIG IS THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH?
Using information gleaned from the articles in 1995 issues of TIME and WORLDWATCH, plus a 1995 world almanac and book of facts, certain baselines can be established. Since we are starting from scratch, let’s start with the surface area of the earth. Taking the almanac as a reference, the diameter of the world is 7,926 miles. This, using the formula “surface area of sphere = 4 x 3.1416 x radius squared,” the earth has 197.4 million square miles of surface. Actually, because the earth is slightly ellipsoid, the surface area is more accurately estimated at approximately 196.9 square miles.
HOW BIG ARE THE OCEANS?
Now most of the earth is covered with ocean, where trees don’t grow; the oceans constitute 138.2 million square miles of earth’s surface, constituted as follows:
- Pacific, 64.2
- Atlantic, 33.4
- Indian, 28.4
- Arctic, 5.1
- Other Seas, 7.1
HOW BIG ARE THE CONTINENTS?
Land masses on earth total 57.9 million square miles, only 29.8% of the total surface area. They are:
- Eurasia, 21.2
- Africa, 11.7
- North America, 9.4
- South America, 6.9
- Antarctica, 5.4
- Australia/Oceania, 3.3
HOW BIG ARE THE FORESTS?
Let’s take some of these facts and see if we can wade through the WORLDWATCH article and get a handle on the size of the Boreal forests in the world. On page 21 of the May/June issue of WORLDWATCH the author states that the Boreal forests are “covering 11 percent of the earth´ s surface and including almost a third of the worlds forests…” The author must mean that the forests cover 11% of the land surface of the world, since if forests covered 11% of the “earth’s surface” there would be no room for the Sahara desert and deforestation would not be a problem. Making that assumption, the area in millions of square miles for the forests of the world are:
- Boreal Forests, 6.4
- Other Forests, 12.8
- Total Forests, 19.2, or 33% of the earth’s land area.
It is not a simple matter to be sure about these facts. On page 22 of the same article, it is stated “Canada has 10% of the world’s forests, and three-quarters of that – about 1 billion hectares, is Boreal…”
HOW BIG ARE THE BOREAL FORESTS IN CANADA?
…this means that 7.5% of the total forest area in the world are Boreal Forests in Canada, which comes out to 1.4 million square miles. But based on the fact that one square mile is 259.2 hectares, Canada´ s “billion” hectares of Boreal forests would equal 3.8 million square miles. That would be a neat trick, since Canada is only 3.9 million square miles in it’s entire territory (including Quebec, mind you). Will the real Canadian Boreal forest please stand up? And where is the other 25% of Canadian non-Boreal forest to go? To summarize the clues in millions of square miles…
- 7.5% of 12.8m/sq miles = 1.4
- 1 billion hectares / 259(hectares/mile) = 3.8
- size of Canada´ s whole territory = 3.9
HOW BIG ARE THE BOREAL FORESTS IN RUSSIA?
On page 25 of the WORLDWATCH article it is declared “Russia’s forests cover 770 million hectares and virtually all of this is Boreal…” This would indicate that the Russian Boreal forests cover an area of 2.9 million square miles. But on page 21 the article says that 70% of the world’s Boreal forests are Russian. So how does this all chalk up in millions of square miles?
- 70% of 6.4m (11% of earth’s land) = 4.5
- 770 million hectares = 2.9
In an attempt to summarize the area and mass of the Boreal forests what has emerged is a beautiful example of why environmentalist hysteria must be identified and countered with reason. Are the Boreal forests being savaged? Probably. But in the May/June 1995 issue of what is arguably the most reputable source of objective environmentalist data in the world, WORLDWATCH Magazine, is a feature on the Boreal forests rife with contradictory facts.
HOW GOOD ARE OUR FACTS SO FAR?
How can we believe any of the inexorable arguments of impending doom if facts presented are not even internally consistent? Am I jumping to conclusions? Let’ s take a few more examples:
Back again on page 21 WORLDWATCH says “in Canada forestland is being felled at the rate of 1 acre every 12 seconds. This is equivalent to 4,106 square miles per year. This “fact” is reasonably consistent with two other facts presented later in the article, the first of which is in the same paragraph on page 21 “About 1 million hectares of Canada´ s forests are logged annually; over the past ten years, that amounts to an area the size of the former East Germany.” This gives us the following values which should be equal but are not…
- 1 acre every 12 seconds = 4,106 sq miles per year
- 1 million hectares annually = 3,858 sq miles per year
- size of East Germany / 10 = 4,176 sq miles
So perhaps that’s not so bad. But getting one’s hopes up could be dangerous. On page 24 WORLDWATCH notes that “it is estimated that one-quarter of the area logged every year will fail to regenerate; an area equal in size to the province of Prince Edward Island.” Ok, here we go…
- 4,106 sq miles logged x 25% = 1,026 square miles
- size of Prince Edward Island = 2,185 square miles
Honey, I just shrunk Prince Edward Island. How can one rely on any of the facts presented in this article? How can one know that the warming of permafrost will release methane “with 21 times the heat trapping power of CO2″ if Canada’s Boreal forests range between 1.4m and 3.8m square miles and Russia’s Boreal forests range between 2.9m and 4.5m square miles BASED ON FACTS PRESENTED IN THE SAME REPORT BY ONE OF THE MOST REPUTABLE ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALS IN THE WORLD!!! How can one know that the Canadian government is subsidizing timber harvests with a bill to the taxpayer of “$176,500 for each Al-Pac job” when Prince Edward Island just got 53% smaller?
HOW FAST IS THE BOREAL FOREST IN CANADA DISAPPEARING?
How fast is the forest disappearing, anyway? This again is a place where getting the facts straight would help. I rather think that the situation is more dire than WORLDWATCH was saying, or at least I hope so for the sake of their credibility. After all, to use their figures for Canada, if around 4,000 square miles per year are cut in a forest of 1.4 million square miles, it would take 350 years to cut it all down. This is alarming but not cataclysmic. Proper forest management could probably handle a 350 year cycle even in the Boreal regions.
THREATS TO THE BOREAL REGIONS
Now that all of this is said, is the situation in the Boreal regions alarming? All in all there are problems, many of which could be ignored since the Boreal regions aren’t chic and popular to fret over. Remember, at these extreme polar latitudes the forests, once cut down, take much longer to regenerate than forests that are logged in tropical regions of the planet. Some of the problems besides non-sustainable forestry that the Boreal regions face:
- air pollution from smelters and power plants
- radioactivity from atomic power and weapons testing
- water pollution & disruption of habitats if commercialization of a northern shipping route from Tokyo to Rotterdam becomes a reality
- adverse impact of new mineral and oil/gas extraction
- new threats to endangered species
FREE MARKET ENVIRONMENTALISM CAN HELP THE BOREAL FORESTS
How severe and how much of a threat these problems are is difficult to assess and highly subjective, but even WORLDWATCH acknowledges that the free market can step in where governments have failed. Many of their recommendations embrace free market principals, such as the first one on their list “phase out below-cost timber subsidies that waste resources and favor special interests.” This one action would drastically reduce the rate of deforestation in Canada.
Other free market compatible ways to help the Boreal forests would be furthered significantly, if indirectly, by removing subsidies. They are to (1) increase paper recycling and (2) explore alternatives to wood fiber. If timber subsidies were removed the price of paper would increase, making recycling and alternative fibers commercially viable!
In Scandinavia most of the Boreal forest is in private hands, and forestry management there is by and large much better than it is in Canada or Russia. In Scandinavia reforestation is the norm and usually works. Of course it does, the owner of the land has the value of their own property at stake!
SO HOW MUCH BOREAL FOREST IS LEFT?
To wrap up, let´ s summarize our findings as accurately as we can (millions of square miles):
- Land Surface of Earth, 57.9
- Forests of Earth, 19.2
- Boreal Forests, 6.4
- Boreal Forests: Russia, 2.9 – 4.5
- Boreal Forests: Canada, 1.4 – 3.9
- Boreal Forests: Other, approximately .5 – 1.0
What is the moral of the story? (1) The Boreal Forests are just as integral to the global ecosystem as the Tropical Forests and they should be given equal attention by all concerned with forestry and the environment. (2) Don’t believe everything you read! We will continue to dig at the true facts, right here, and clearly more investigation is necessary. Investigation will be ongoing. That’s why we are here.
HOW IS TIMBER MASS CALCULATED?
By the way, according to the American Forestry Association, timber mass is calculated by taking the circumference in inches (measured 4.5 feet above the ground) plus the height in feet, plus one fourth the average crown spread in feet. This factor times a constant will yield mass in cubic feet or cubic meters. So the next step, establishing levels of timber mass, can be readily estimated.
METRIC MEASUREMENTS MAKE ANALYSIS & UNDERSTANDING EASIER
As we go from establishing areas of forest coverage to actual timber mass per area, it will be necessary to go metric. The relationship between area and volume is much harder to appreciate using the imperial system of weights and measures. Get ready.
Last of all, here are some interesting conversion tables that will help you when you read your next article in WORLDWATCH, TIME, ECOWORLD
or any other source of earth information:
- 1 hectare = 2.471 acres
- 1 acre = .405 hectares
- 1 square mile = 640 acres or 259 hectares
- 1 square mile = 2.59 square kilometers
- 1 square kilometer = .386 square miles
- 1 square kilometer = 247 acres or 100 hectares!
and just for fun (get ready for water…)
- 1 cubic kilometer = 811,203 acre feet!