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Vanishing forest: a northern forest is disappearing at a rapid pace--that spells trouble for billions of animals.

A long the rim of Earth's northernmost land-masses sits an ancient forest. Its mix of pine, spruce, and other hardy trees encircles the globe like a giant green halo (see map, p. 19). This interconnected web of trees, mosses, birds, and other organisms is called the boreal forest. It is the world's largest intact forest ecosystem--It's even bigger than Earth's tropical rain forests.

But many regions in the boreal forest (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 20) are under assault. According to scientists, logging, mining, and oil and gas companies are yelling "timber," leveling trees more often than the forest can sustain. "In many areas of Canada, the rate of [tree] cutting is faster than the rate of regrowth," says David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta in Canada.

That spells trouble for more than just the forest. Trees absorb carbon dioxide gas, a culprit in global warming, or the increase in Earth's average temperature. Fewer trees could speed up this warming. Tree loss could also affect the survival of the billions of animals that call the forest home.

SENSITIVE SPECIES

Each spring, approximately 3 billion migratory birds that winter in South America or southern North America turn tail and fly northward to the boreal forest. Why do the birds--from white pelicans to dark-eyed junco songbirds--undertake the lengthy journey, which may span hundreds or even thousands of miles?

Although vast swaths of the boreal forest are losing trees to deforestation, the ecosystem is approximately 70 percent intact. "It is one of only a handful of ecological systems that's still largely untouched and unfragmented by humans," says Jeff Wells, a scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative in Seattle, Washington. Once the birds--famished from their long journeys--finally reach the forest, they feast on a rich smorgasbord of insects and fruits that have sprung to life following a harsh northern winter. The nourishment helps prepare the birds for a successful breeding season in the boreal forest.

Many other animal species also rely on the boreal forest for survival. For instance, woodland caribou feed on the lichen that blankets the forest floor. This complex plant is composed of a fungus and an alga that grow together, relying on each other for survival. "It isn't until forests are middle-aged--from 50 to 100 years old--that the forest develops the lichen species that the caribou like to feed on," says Schindler.

But rapid deforestation in many areas of the boreal forest is robbing animals, including boreal birds and woodland caribou, of their food sources and secure breeding grounds. "Human development has meant that we've seen a decline in certain animal species that rely on the forest," says Schindler. "Particularly under threat are large carnivores (meat eaters) such as boreal grizzlies, lynx, and wolverine."

TIMBER!

Why is the boreal forest vanishing? The forest is a rich mine of natural resources. "Every sheet of paper that people use has come from a tree--most likely from the boreal forest," says Schindler. But that's not the only reason why saw blades are whirring.

Beneath the forest's ground lies a treasure trove of minerals, petroleum, and natural gas. To extract these resources, huge stretches of North America's boreal forest are being razed.

In the 1940s, the boreal region in the Canadian province of Alberta covered an area two thirds the size of California. At that time, only two or three roads cut through the forest. Today, "development has been so rapid that you can't walk more than 300 or 400 meters (980 to 1,300 feet) without coming across a road or other track, where people have gone through with a bulldozer to test for the presence of oil and gas underneath," says Schindler.

HEATING UP

But leveling the boreal forest does more than destroy homes for birds and animals. It also contributes to global warming. Every tree photosynthesizes, or uses sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the energy the tree needs to grow. As long as a tree is alive, the carbon it absorbs during photosynthesis stays locked in its trunk and leaves. This helps remove carbon gas from the atmosphere so it doesn't add to global warming, explains Schindler.

When industries shave large areas of the forest, the ecosystem's ability to store carbon is sharply reduced. This could set off a string of catastrophes: As the amount of the heat-trapping gas builds in the atmosphere, temperatures in the boreal forest and around the globe heat up. The heat dries out the trees. A dry forest is more likely to catch fire than a healthy one. And when trees burn, they release the carbon they've been storing.

THERE'S HOPE

Despite the rapid rate of deforestation, the boreal forest remains largely intact and can be saved, says Wells. "We still have the opportunity to do the right thing and protect it."

And teens like you can help to save the boreal forest. For example, Elizabeth Anderson, a sixth-grader from Westborough, Massachusetts, has placed boxes around town so people can toss in unwanted mall catalogues. Then, she calls the catalogue companies and asks them to take the recipients' names off their mailing lists.

Why cancel unwanted catalogues? Five acres of the boreal forest are cut down per minute for paper and wood products that go largely to the United States. "Everyone should try to save the boreal forest," says Elizabeth.

Nuts & Bolts

In the boreal forest, temperatures often stay below freezing (0[degrees]C, or 32[degrees]F) for half the year. The plants and animals that live there have adapted to survive the harsh conditions. For instance, the forest is mostly made up of conifers--such as pine and spruce trees. Since water in the boreal forest is frozen for much of the year, the conifers' waxy, needle-shaped leaves lock in moisture.

WEB EXTRA

Learn about Alaska's boreal forest: www.wildlife.alaska.gov./index.cfm?adfg=ecosystems.boreal

DID YOU KNOW?

* The combined boreal forest regions in Canada and Russia store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.

* One third of all North American birds breed in Canada's boreal forest region. During the summer breeding season, the boreal is home to nearly 300 species of birds.

CRITICAL THINKING:

* Woodland caribou feed on lichen found in forests that are 50 to 100 years old. Other animals, such as deer and moose, feast on plants in the early stages of growth. How might logging affect these two types of feeders? (Answer: Deer and moose will thrive as logged forests begin to grow back. Woodland caribou will die off or be forced to move to pristine old-growth forests.)

CROSS-CURRICULAR CONNECTIONS:

SOCIAL STUDIES: The boreal forest is home to many humans, including the Sami people who live in parts of Scandinavia and northwestern Russia. Do research to learn more about the Sami culture. How might the destruction of the boreal forest and its animals affect this northern society?

RESOURCES

* To learn about Elizabeth Anderson's project to save the boreal forest, download this M.S. Word document from The Westborough News: www.borealbirds.org/documents/WestboroughNews_girlscout092305.doc

* "The Final Frontier," Audubon, September-October 2005.

* "Boreal: The Great Northern Forest," National Geographic, June 2002.

DIRECTIONS: On a separate piece of paper, answer the following in complete sentences.

1. Where is the boreal forest located?

2. Why is the boreal forest important to many species of migratory birds?

3. Why are middle-aged sections of the boreal forest so important to the survival of the woodland caribou?

4. Why is the boreal forest vanishing?

5. How does leveling the boreal forest contribute to global warming'?

Vanishing Forest

1. The boreal forest is located at the rim of Earth's northernmost landmasses. Its mix of pine, spruce, and other hardy trees encircle the globe like a giant green halo.

2. Although vast swaths of the boreal forest are losing trees to deforestation, the ecosystem is approximately 70 percent intact. So each spring, approximately 3 billion migratory birds that spend the winter in South America or southern North America turn tail and fly to the boreal forest. They undertake the lengthy journey, which may span hundreds or even thousands of miles, to feast on a rich smorgasbord of insects and fruits that have sprung to life in the forest following a harsh northern winter. The nourishment helps prepare the birds for a successful breeding season in the boreal forest.

3. The woodland caribou feeds on the lichen that blankets the forest floor This complex plant is composed of a fungus and an alga that grow together, relying on each ethel for survival It isn't until forests are middle aged--from 50 to 100 years old--that the trees develop the lichen species that the caribou like to feed on. But rapid deforestation In several areas of the boreal forest is robbing the woodland caribou of its food sources

4. The boreal forest is vanishing because swaths of the forest's trees are logged and turned into paper and wood products In addition. beneath the forests ground lies a treasure trove of minerals. petroleum and natural gas For companies to extract these resources they have to raze vast stretches of North America's boreal forest.

5. Every tree photosynthesizes, or uses sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the energy the tree needs to grow As long as a tree is alive the carbon it absorbs during photosynthesis is locked in its trunk and leaves This helps remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so it doesn't add to global warming When industries shave large areas of the forest, the ecosystem's ability to store carbon is sharply reduced This could set off a string of catastrophes: As the amount of heat trapping gas builds in the atmosphere, temperatures in the boreal forest and around the globe heat up The heat dries out the trees A dry forest is more likely to catch fire than a healthy one And when trees burn they release the carbon stored in their leaves and trunks
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Title Annotation:LIFE: BIOMES
Author:Janes, Patricia
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 27, 2006
Words:1662
Previous Article:Mega melt: get set for Ice Age 2: The Meltdown with our science-guide to glaciers.
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