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Canada Scientists fear for wildlife in Ontario's boreal forest as wildfires get more frequent and intense

12:43  25 july  2021
12:43  25 july  2021 Source:   cbc.ca

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Forest fires will put infrastructure like roads, power lines and telecommunications corridors at greater risk over the next century, wildfire experts say. Wildfire experts say there's a greater risk that vital infrastructure that criss-crosses Ontario ' s far north, like power lines and telecommunications corridors, will be damaged or destroyed by forest fires as blazes will become more frequent and intense . There's over 109 million hectares of space across Canada where forested or grassland areas come into contact with things like roads, bridges, power lines, railroads and telecommunications lines for

Bigger, hotter wildfires are turning Canada’ s vast boreal forest into a significant new source of climate-changing greenhouse gases, scientists say. The shift, which may have already happened, could force firefighters to change how they battle northern blazes, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at the “Now those old forests are young forests , so when the next forest fire hits that area, those are going to be systems that are vulnerable to legacy carbon release. “We can have thousands of years of productivity stored and then released in a matter of minutes.” At some point, fires will release more

a panda bear walking across a snow covered field: More intense, frequent wildfires driven by climate change could have serious implications for the wildlife of northern Ontario's boreal forest, including the wolverine, a threatened species in the province, says wildlife researcher Matt Scrafford. © Liam Cowan/WCS Canada More intense, frequent wildfires driven by climate change could have serious implications for the wildlife of northern Ontario's boreal forest, including the wolverine, a threatened species in the province, says wildlife researcher Matt Scrafford.

As wildfires continue to burn through northern Ontario's great expanse of boreal forest, smothering the deep greens and blues of the land, experts are keeping an eye on the hundreds of animal species living within.

Although the 2021 fire season has already been one of the worst in the past decade, this year's fires aren't the most worrying — it's those yet to come.

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They are becoming more frequent and more intense and have the potential to release the “legacy carbon” deeply buried within the boreal soil, which doesn’t usually burn in fire season. In the Siberian boreal , fires engulfed 17 million acres of forests in just two months in 2019, then about 27 million Habitat loss from forest fires and climate change, as well as from industrial activity, is putting the wildlife in the boreal region at risk, from caribou and wolverines in Canada to Siberian tigers in Russia. Climate researchers fear these problems are only getting worse and could push the boreal forests

The boreal forest shelters more than 85 species of mammals, including some of Global increases in temperatures could bring more frequent and severe disturbances from fire and The boreal forest is strongly influenced by natural disturbances, such as wildfires , insects, and disease, as well as human ones. Finally, individuals are getting informed about the boreal forest and are taking action, like

"Animals are adapted to wildfire. Some animals head to the water and others escape ahead of the fire," said Connie O'Connor, director of the Ontario Northern Boreal Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of Canada.

But as summers in northwestern Ontario become warmer and drier — something O'Connor and others have linked to climate change — fires are becoming more frequent, larger, hotter and more intense.

"My fear as a wildlife scientist is that these fires are going to get to the stage where it is too much for animals' natural adaptations to fire to handle any more, that it's going to kind of overwhelm them."

Water

O'Connor, an aquatic scientist by training, said many people don't really think about the relationship between fish and forest fires, but fish have certain adaptations to deal with fires, like naturally seeking in deeper, cooler places in the water systems.

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One of the most prevalent causes of global deforestation and destruction of wildlife is fire . In the United States in particular, fire has ravaged many areas of both forest and countryside. Forest or wildlife fires spread at different speeds depending on vegetation, weather conditions, and physical features. Discovered fossil charcoal indicate that forest fires are not new to modern history as some date back to over one hundred million years ago.

Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Forest Service investigators determined it was sparked by a lightning strike from a storm that was previously known to have ignited a smaller, nearby fire that was extinguished on June 30, Oregon Forestry Department spokesman Marcus Kauffman told Reuters.

"The ash that goes into the water, in the long term, it can even be a benefit to fish because it can increase the nutrients in the water for little aquatic bugs and stuff to grow."

But as industrial activities and the construction of new roads and dams continue to reshape parts of the boreal forest, and hotter temperatures possibly decrease water levels, O'Connor said, there could be increased "acute fish kills." That's because the same waterways and deep areas the fish have historically relied on would cease to exist, she said.

Then, firefighting efforts could harm fish species, "because the actual fire retardants can be toxic for them and those foam fire suppressants on top of water can block the oxygen."

Land

Before his work as a wildfire researcher, Matt Scrafford was a wildland firefighter on the front lines of the fires.

"We would often see animals running from these fires," he said. "I mean, we've had snowshoe hares running basically over top of us, or you'd see deer running, or chipmunks or squirrels … you'd see them fleeing the fires."

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Canada' s boreal forest is a vast region comprising about one third of the circumpolar boreal forest that rings the Northern Hemisphere, mostly north of the 50th parallel. Other countries with boreal forest include Russia, which contains the majority, the United States in its northernmost state of Alaska

Most of all, given that humans and lightning account for almost all wildfire ignitions, it’ s extremely difficult if not impossible to predict exactly when and where a blaze will start. “What regrows after fire will be more adapted to these conditions so will probably produce less fuel,” says Bachelet. The ecosystems in such areas are “resetting”, she explains. In places like California, years of fighting fires and leaving trees intact on hillsides allowed forests to become even denser than they might have been.

Mobile land species can often get out of the way of the fires, Scrafford said, but the problem is these forest fires are massive and changing the entire composition of landscapes.

"There's really not a lot of places for these animals to go, in the sense that these systems are filled up with animals to begin with, and there's not vacant territories everywhere for these animals to get pushed out."

Add in the disturbances to the boreal forest caused by forestry, mining and other human activity, and "you just get really high levels of disturbance," Scrafford added. That would create more competition for limited resources, and some species will inevitably suffer as a result.

The researcher points to the elusive species he studies: the wolverine, a threatened species in Ontario.

"We see so many instances of wolverines with missing eyes, and missing ears and missing sides of their skull … they really beat each other up," said Scrafford. "It's because there's fierce competition for habitat and there's fierce competition for the females."

Wolverines are territorial, and while they have large "home ranges," he said, all the disturbances could pit the few hundred wolverines against one another for disappearing habitats.

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While he hasn't seen that happen yet, it's something Scrafford is keeping a close eye on as his research continues.

"There's definitely a relationship between this increased frequency of forest fires, and the severity of these fires and some negative effects on the wolverines."

Air

Even some of the most mobile of animals — birds — will be affected by the increasingly intense and frequent wildfires, said Claire Farrell, an associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

There is the natural forest fire regime, Farrell explained, where forest fires create patches of burned areas that later regrow.

"When you picture the forest, it's actually a mosaic of different ages of forests, different types of forest interspersed with lakes and wetlands. Because that mosaic is so different, different species of birds rely on those patches of habitat."

Some of Farrell's previous research focused on the nightjar, a family of birds that was previously considered to be one of Ontario's fastest declining species. She said nightjars actually use the large, open burn patches created by forest fires to fly around and catch large insects.

"As climate change is increasing the intensity and severity of forest fires, theoretically speaking, that would create more burned open stands for them, which they use to catch a lot of insect prey."

However, she warned that many other bird species, like the ovenbird, rely on old growth forest patches as habitat, and those areas could decrease with growing wildfires.

Farrell said people in northern First Nations have reported seeing new species shifting their ranges as they adapt to or find new habitats, and have stopped seeing some species that were always known to be there.

Echoing O'Connor and Scrafford, Farrell said there are still a lot of unknowns about how climate change, wildfires and other human-caused disturbances will cumulatively affect the wildlife of northern Ontario's boreal forest.

"That's something that we're keeping an eye on," she added.

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