Sharing Perspectives: Our team talks about the boreal forests and the recent wildfires

A discussion between Steve Lydenberg, Partner for Strategic Vision, and Mary Cobble, an Investment Analyst at Domini.  

If you were to walk outside in New York City the first week of June, you would have been met by an eerily familiar sight: masked individuals with their heads down, darting to their next locations as fast as possible. However, instead of masking to protect from the invisible threat of a deadly virus, individuals were masked to prevent the inhalation of something more visible, but potentially even more unnerving: thick, toxic smoke particles drifting from Canada’s boreal forest fires. In a matter of hours, the city was consumed by the dense, orange haze, generating an almost post-apocalyptic feeling across the area.

As the smoke settled in, so too did my questions. Where exactly was this coming from? What could cause such a rapid, widespread, and tangible effect? I had heard of the fires blazing across Canada, but the confrontation with their fumes was largely unanticipated by myself and by the average person in the Northeast. This enveloping cloud of smoke which spread across much of the Northeastern and Central U.S. was indeed the tangible reminder that millions of acres of land across Canada were being destroyed already in this year’s fire season, forcing evacuations, creating harmful air quality, and painting an all-too vivid portrait of the real-time effects of climate change.

In an attempt to better understand how a natural disaster like this one could come about, I sat down with one of Domini’s co-founders and, Partner for Strategic Vision, Steve Lydenberg, to discuss the boreal forests and the fires within them, and their critical function in our climate systems. Steve has been focusing much of his time on spearheading our firm’s Forest Project over the past five years.

Discussing the Boreal Forests and Canadian Wildfires

MC: We’re over a month on and Canada’s wildfires and their lingering effects continue to make the headlines. But to take one step back, can you help me understand how these fires began, and the extent to which we’ve seen something of their nature before?

Picture of Steve Lydenberg
Steve Lydenberg, Partner for Strategic Vision

SL: Indeed, Mary, this recent news has reminded us that the vast boreal forests of the northern globe are burning and now have begun to rival those of the tropics around the world as well as those in the Mediterranean climates of California and southeastern Australia, both of which burst on the scene as long as ten years ago.

MC: In comparison to tropical forest fires, can you describe how boreal forest fires operate as part of their natural ecosystem? Are there elements that make certain types of forest fires more or less destructive?

SL: Fire is a natural part of life in boreal forests. Primarily lightning sparks these fires, although human activities can also accidentally ignite them. They burn and life returns. After the fires, trees adapt and regenerate themselves. The jack pine’s cones of the Canadian forests, for example, need the intense heat of these fires before they can spring open and spread their seeds. Unlike boreal forest fires, those of the damp, humid tropics are set by humans, not lightning. They are part of a purposeful deforestation that turns jungle into farming and grazing lands. Some of these natural patterns are disturbed or intensified as you see forests changing from diverse natural forests to monoculture forest plantations.

Unfortunately, in both climates it is a challenge to bring back these intact forests once they have burnt, but for different reasons. In the boreal regions, growing seasons are short—it can take a century or longer to re-establish a mature forest. In the tropics, the soil, poor in quality, is the challenge.

MC: I’ve learned recently that boreal forests are actually the world’s largest land biome.

SL: They are of staggering size. The boreal forests stretch from northern Scandinavia across Russia and then from Alaska to the east coast of Canada. The Russian “taiga” alone occupies approximately two billion acres—that’s larger than the total 1.8 billion acres of the lower 48 states of the U.S. Alaska and Canada account for an additional 1.5 billion acres of boreal forest.

Photo of Mary Cobble
Mary Cobble, Investment Analyst

MC: I can only imagine how damaging the recent fires are to global ecosystems.

SL: Forests in the boreal regions are disproportionately impacted by climate change: the further north you go the faster the temperature is rising. Consequently, they are now drying out and heating up; wildfires there are starting earlier, ending later, and burning over historically wider areas. For 2023, the fires in Canada are the worst ever recorded. In Russia, a record was set in 2021. Scandinavia is reporting an early start to the 2023 wildfire season. Acreage of wildfire burns in Alaska has increased substantially since 2000.

MC: How would you explain the significance of losses to the boreal forest ecosystems?

SL: These forests store immense amounts of carbon. They account for 30% or more of the total carbon on land, mostly in peat bogs and underground in stable soil. This despite the fact that they occupy only 11% of the world’s land area. They can sequester almost two times the amount of carbon per acre as tropical forests.

These wildfires not only release carbon stored in the trees themselves as they burn but slow down these forests’ ability to sequester going forward. If the peat bogs dry up, one of their main engines of carbon sequestration will be lost.

In addition wildfires can have negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, communities, health, and local economies as well as birds, mammals and insects living in and near the forests.

MC: At what point would a forest be considered irreparably damaged from fires, and what sort of long-term effects could this cause?

SL: These forests are huge. It will take many years of worsening climate change to do irreparable damage. But the boreal forests could reach a tipping point where they become part of a vicious downward cycle if we continue to see a rapid rise in temperatures in the north. Warmer, longer summers could lead to more record-breaking wildfires that in turn undercut these forests’ ability to store carbon, which in its turn would accelerate the accumulation of greenhouse gases and warming of the climate.

These clouds of smoke are a reminder for us all—a signal from the north—that to avoid this looming scenario, we need to redouble our efforts to help protect forests around the world, with appropriate policy and corporate action. If we don’t rein in these disruptive changes, we stand to lose a resource key to preserving the stability of our climate systems.