An American research centre says Canada's boreal forests, which contain a quarter of the world's wetlands, are the most important global carbon sink and their preservation should be an international priority.
The Pew Environment Group, a non-profit research trust established by the family of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph N. Pew, released a report Wednesday called Canada's Boreal Forest, the World's Waterkeeper.
Steve Kallick, the director of Pew's international boreal conservation camp, said American researchers were stunned to learn exactly how much fresh water and how many carbon-draining peat bogs are located in the forest that cover the top of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and the far north across to Alaska.
Carbon sinks are essential to controlling greenhouse gases and the forests of northern Canada now play a larger role in reducing carbon emissions that the rainforests of the Amazon, said Mr. Kallick. That makes saving them a global conservation priority, he said.
The Pew study says the bulwark provided by boreal ecosystems against the loss of biodiversity and global warming have an estimated value of $700-billion annually.
The forests contain half of the world's lakes that are larger than a square kilometre in size; five of the world's 50 largest rivers; 200 million acres of surface water; and Great Bear Lake, the world's largest remaining unpolluted body of fresh water.
In addition, the report says, the wetlands and peatlands store an estimated 147 billion tonnes of carbon, more than 25 years worth of current man-made emissions. The delta of the Mackenzie River alone stores 41 billion tonnes.
The flow of water from the boreal forests to the Arctic is also critical for forming sea ice, which cools the atmosphere, the report says.
But the boreal forests are under threat from development including mining and hydroelectricity projects, the study says.
The Pew Environment Group makes four recommendations aimed at preserving boreal waterways:
» Mining legislation must be reformed to require aboriginal consultation and to improve habitat protection and water quality and that mines must be prohibited from dumping waste into lakes and streams.
» New hydroelectric facilities should not be approved unless it can be proved that there will be minimal impact on ecosystems and there has been a comprehensive environmental review.
» Canada should follow Manitoba's lead and develop a national peatlands stewardship strategy.
» The Mackenzie Basin Agreement, which links the land-use policies in several provinces and territories aimed at preserving the watershed, should be fully implemented.
Visit PEW's website for videos showing Canada's boreal forests.