In Far North, Peril and Promise

Great Forests Hold Fateful Role in Climate Change

PINE FALLS, Manitoba — Here on the edge of the silent and frozen northern tier of the Earth, the fate of the world’s climate is buried beneath the snow and locked in the still limbs of aspen trees.

Nearly half of the carbon that exists on land is contained in the sweeping boreal forests, which gird the Earth in the northern reaches of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia and Russia. Scientists now fear that the steady rise in the temperature of the atmosphere and the increasing human activity in those lands are releasing that carbon, a process that could trigger a vicious cycle of even more warming.

The prospect of the land itself accelerating climate change staggers scientists, as well as woodsmen such as Bob Austman, who stopped recently in a quiet stand of birch on the edge of the boreal forest to examine a jack rabbit’s tracks.

“There are big forces out there,” he said succinctly.

Those forces, which scientists are only starting to understand, could free vast stores of carbon and methane that have been collecting since the last ice age in the frozen tundra and northern forests. Their release would push the world’s climate toward a heat spiral that would raise ocean levels, spawn fierce storms and scorch farmlands, scientists believe.

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