Canada holds a quarter of the world’s soil carbon, study finds

Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative called Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Canada stores about a quarter of the world’s soil carbon, according to a new study that highlights the country’s role in protecting that carbon and preventing further climate change.

These carbon-rich soils are found mostly in peatlands: the swampy swamps of northern Ontario and parts of Manitoba that are filled with accumulated plant material that has accumulated over thousands of years.

According to the study, about five percent of Canada’s terrestrial carbon is stored in plants, trees, shrubs and other plants above ground, while about 95 percent of it is found underground. in the top meter of the ground.

Soil carbon is a valuable resource because it prevents greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, which is why it is so important to keep it in the soil. If this amount of carbon is lost – due to natural events, such as forest fires or human activities, such as mining, logging and agriculture – it will end up in the atmosphere. and will exacerbate global warming, scientists say.

The study, carried out in collaboration with several indigenous communities and published at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow on Wednesday, suggests that protecting this carbon is key to Canada’s climate efforts. Maintaining a 1.5 C limit on global warming “within reach” is one of the key goals of COP26, the annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties, the global decision-making body created in the 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on the Climate. Climate change and subsequent agreements.

“Storing carbon in ecosystems and ensuring the avoided conversion and degradation of these important carbon stocks can be a critical path to achieving a 1.5 ° C future, ensuring that carbon is not not emitted into the atmosphere and, in turn, trying to increase the amount of carbon. we store in these terrestrial ecosystems, ”said James Snider, who heads the science, knowledge and innovation team at WWF-Canada, who collaborated on the report.

Soil carbon accumulates when carbon dioxide in the air is taken up by plants during photosynthesis and converted into leaves and roots, which is why peatlands contain so much. Carbon is deposited – or sequestered – in the soil and accumulates over time, keeping the carbon dioxide responsible for climate change out of the atmosphere.

Canada has so much carbon in the soil due to the presence of so many peatlands and its size.

A study map showing terrestrial carbon stocks in Canada. The coastal forests of British Columbia, the boreal forest, and the Hudson and James Bay lowlands have been shown to be particularly rich in carbon. (WWF-Canada / Sothe et al.)

The results put a renewed emphasis on Canada’s conservation efforts. The federal government has committed to protecting or conserving 25% of Canada’s land by 2025 and working to protect 30% by 2030 as part of the country’s efforts to address climate change and defend vulnerable species and ecosystems.

“Canada has a huge global responsibility for managing and protecting the carbon in this ecosystem,” said Snider. “It’s not just important to us… it’s important globally, to show how a country like Canada can actually still protect these places in the right way.”

The study includes a detailed map of where carbon is stored in Canada, up to a resolution of 250 meters. This could allow organizations, governments, and even individuals to focus on certain areas and determine how carbon-rich an ecosystem is – and how important it might be to protect it.

Recent technology makes study possible

The study combined field surveys and measurements with satellite technology and a machine learning algorithm to arrive at the first account of total carbon stores in Canada’s ecosystems. Some of the techniques represent recent technological advances that were not available to researchers in the past.

One example is satellite laser technology called LiDAR that researchers have used to measure the canopy height of trees across Canada. The technology sends laser beams from a satellite to Earth, then measures the time it takes for the beams to bounce to determine the height of trees in various areas.

“[If] we don’t know how much carbon is in forest trees and peatlands and agricultural soils and plant roots and dead plants… McMaster University and Canada Research Chair in Remote Sensing of Terrestrial Ecosystems.

Gonsamo worked on the project, helping to identify where carbon is stored in Canada. The next step is to use this data to determine where this carbon is most likely to be lost.

“We can predict how much carbon will be released if the warming continues as it has been so far,” Gonsamo said.

Soils are particularly rich in carbon due to peat, which is a plant material that accumulates over thousands of years. (Casa Di Media Productions / WWF-Canada)

Carbon vulnerable to development

The study confirms what forestry expert Suzanne Simard saw in her own research, but the large amount of carbon found in the soil surprised her nonetheless.

“When we understand the severity of the stores, the severity of the potential loss, it becomes more important in the minds of people,” said Simard, a professor at the Vancouver-based University of British Columbia and recently wrote a book titled Finding the Mother Tree which tells about her life by studying forests.

“I am surprised. I am a scientist who studies soils, and I am delighted and surprised to see these numbers.”

This terrestrial carbon faces several threats, Simard said, both directly and indirectly from human activity. Northern permafrost, which is permanently frozen ground in arctic regions of Canada, could melt due to climate change, releasing its soils’ carbon stores into the atmosphere.

This in turn would accelerate climate change, Simard says, causing a feedback loop that leads to even more permafrost melting.

Human activities such as mechanized agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and mining also release this carbon.

“If we are to try to neutralize our carbon emissions by 2050, this is a major place that we have to pay attention to,” she said.

“Let’s not lose more carbon from these amazing stocks.”

Keep carbon in the soil

Study researchers collaborated with the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents eight Cree First Nations in the James Bay region of northern Ontario. The area has been identified in the report as containing some of the most carbon-rich ecosystems in Canada.

Participants collected field measurements as part of the research.

“We felt it was important to be a part of that and map the carbon that we’re trying to get attention to in our region because it’s a huge carbon store,” Vern said. Cheechoo, Director of Lands and Resources at Mushkegowuk. Advice.

“It’s a huge, huge carbon sink.”

The region is home to the Ring of Fire, an area 500 kilometers north of Thunder Bay that contains valuable deposits of chromite, a component of steel, as well as minerals used in batteries such as cobalt, lithium and nickel. .

The Ontario government plans to open the area to mining and has proposed legislative changes to remove barriers to development in the area. Several indigenous communities oppose the plan. New data on carbon stocks in the region’s soils could support the argument that the area should be protected.

The Ring of Fire mineral deposit is located more than 500 kilometers north of Thunder Bay. (CBC News)

In a roundtable at the COP26 climate change conference this week, Canada’s Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault admitted the country had “catching up” to do on conservation. He stressed that his government is committed to meeting Canada’s land protection goals by 2025 and 2030.

He spoke directly to the Ring of Fire Project, stating that “we see our continued effort at reconciliation as a guarantee that these activities on First Nations, Métis and Inuit lands are carried out with their collaboration, with a place at the table for them… and in many cases, by them leading the way. “

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault at COP26 in Glasgow. The federal government has pledged to protect 25 percent of Canada’s land by 2025 (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Members of several indigenous communities in the region will continue to work with the Gonsamo team to monitor carbon stocks in the region as a collaborative effort.

Cheechoo said the study results will help Mushkegowuk Council in its efforts to protect soil carbon.

“We hope that the work we are doing … [will] bring more funding for capacity building so that we can continue to monitor the carbon storage of the carbon sink and ensure that, you know, the carbon is always kept where it should be kept, ”he said. -he declares.

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