Russian boreal forests, known as the "taiga", comprise the largest forest area (about 808.8 million ha) in the world (FAO 2006; WWF 2007). Although these forests have relatively few tree species, they are crucial to terrestrial ecosystem, climate change, as well as local social and economic activities. Recently, large areas of forests are under threat from different factors (both human and natural), and significant deforestation occurred.
Boreal deforestation of Far Eastern Siberia
Boreal forests, comprising up to 32% of world’s forested area, are as important as tropical rainforest ecosystems in terms of global climate dynamics.Comprising 808.8 million ha, forests in Russia (mostly boreal forests) alone account for over 25% of the world’s total forested area. Among these forests, 78% are in Siberia and the Far East. Recent estimates of deforestation of Russia reach as high as 20,000 sq km annually (a total of 96,000 sq km from 2000 to 2005), comparable to that in the Amazon Basin (Achard et al. 2006; FAO 2006; WWF 2007).
Boreal forests in Russia play a crucial role in climate change because they are an important carbon sink, holding almost 50% of the northern hemisphere’s terrestrial carbon. According to the WWF (2007) and Woods Hole Research Center (2007), Russian forests contain approximately “56.3 Pg (petagrams, or billion tonnes) of carbon in vegetation and 135.7 Pg in soil organic”; and approximately 60 per cent of this carbon is locked within permafrost in the form of frozen peat (WWF 2007).
These forests serve as the most important resource for many indigenous people in some of less developed regions in Russia. Forest product (timber harvesting and non-timber forest product collection) and other wild natural resources (e.g. tundra, marine, freshwater) serve as the major subsistence sources for almost all of the 45 officially registered indigenous nationalities (WWF 2007).
Boreal forests in Siberia also play an important role as an ecosystem since it includes several important Global 200 ecoregions (East Siberian taiga, Far East temperate forests, Russian Far East rivers and wetlands, Lake Baikal et al.) - A science-based global ranking of the Earth’s most biologically outstanding habitats (Olson and Dinerstein 2002; WWF 2007)
Contributing to more than half of the total loss, forest fire is the primary threat to the boreal forest, with an average annual rate of approximately one to three million hectares (WWF 2007). Larger (and rarer) catastrophic fires also average 13-14 million hectares in damage (ibid). Many researchers have identified significant forest loss due to wildfires. According to Potapov and Hansen (2008), about 65.2% of the total forest loss is attributed to fire. Although there could be some fluctuation due to anomalies in weather, more than 87% of fires in boreal Russia were started by humans (Mollicone, Eva, and Achard 2006). Human interference in Russia is primarily linked to commercial activity; for example, in order to export cheap lumber, rogue timber firms illegally and deliberately started these fires (WWF 2007).
Fueled by international pressures and commercial benefit, logging has become an important direct form of deforestation, which leads to both environmental and economic losses.There are generally two types of logging activity leading to large areas of deforestation: (a) clear cuts and (b) high intensity selective logging, leading to a rapid land-cover change in clustered (not randomly or uniformly distributed) locations (Achard et al. 2006). Again, it is the demand for resources in world markets (e.g. China, Southeast Asia and Europe) that increases the intensity of deforestation activity. In particular, the increase of illegal felling, which now accounts for 30% of the total felling volume (up to 70% in some regions) causes loss in both environment and economy (WWF 2007).
Climate change is also a driver rather than solely a consequence of deforestation, as “it is expected to cause an increase in fire, insect, and pathogen activity in the high latitude north.Significant warming has already occurred in the boreal region” (Nelson et al. 2008: 691).
The major impact of Siberian deforestation is climate change due to carbon emissions. Boreal forests used to be net carbon sink. However, thawing permafrost could potentially increase carbon emissions because a huge amount of carbon stored in Russia’s forests is locked in frozen peat. For example, the massive forest fires in Siberia in 2003 are said to have released “as much greenhouse gas as the total EU reduction commitment under the Kyoto protocol” (WWF 2007).
Biodiversity, ecosystem services, indigenous people's livelihoods, and the economy are all affected by Siberian deforestation. An example is the Amur tigers, threatened by deforestation in Siberia. According to the WWF-International, rampant logging will severely threaten the habitat of some of the rarest animals in the world (e.g. Amur tiger and Amur leopard) (WWF 2009). However, compared with climate change, there still seems to be less concern about these specices.
Considering some of these major causes of deforestation are related to human activities, it is possible to control the situation through better management and policy. WWF Russia’s Forest Programme now works to safeguard the country’s forests through sustainable forestry management models, promoting responsible business strategies, curbing illegal logging and timber trade, and formulating national forest policy (WWF 2007).
Scientists must also work out the interconnection between climate change and deforestation in Siberia. There has already been some research on this topic but the relationship among forests, climate, and humans is still uncertain (See more in Kharuk et al. 2007).
Achard, F., D. Mollicone, H. Stibig, D. Aksenov, L. Laestadius, Z. Li, P. Popatov and A. Yaroshenko. 2006. Areas of rapid forest-cover change in boreal Eurasia. Forest Ecology and Management 237: 322-334
FAO. 2006. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005: Progress towards sustainable forest management. FAP Forestry Paper 147. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
Mollicone, D., H. D. Eva, F. Achard. 2006. Human role in Russian wild fires. Nature 440: 436-437
Nelson, R., K. J. Ranson, G. Sun, D. S. Kimes, V. Kharuk and P. Montesano. 2008. Estimating Siberian timber volume using MODIS and ICESat/GLAS. Remote Sensing of Environment 113: 691-701
Olson, D. M. and E. Dinsestein. 2002. The Global 200: Priority Ecoregions for Global Conservation. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 89: 199-224
Potapov, P., M. C. Hansen, S. V. Stehman, T. R. Loveland and K. Pittman. 2008. Combining MODIS and Landsat imagery to estimate and map boreal forest cover loss. Remote Sensing of Environment 112: 3708-3719
Woods Hole Research Center 2007, Natural System of Russia, 2007 http://whrc.org/russia/russias_importance/natural_system.htm (last accessed 3 November 2009)
WWF 2007, Russia’s Boreal Forests, November 13 2007 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/russia_forest_cc_final_13nov07.pdf (last accessed 3 November 2009)
WWF 2009, Amur tigers threatened by economic crisis, April 24 2009 http://www.panda.org/wwf_news/?162901/Amur-tigers-threatened-by-economic... (last accessed 3 November 2009)