Thursday, September 19, 2002 Back The Halifax Herald Limited

Global warming will hit forestry hard - ecologist

By Dennis Bueckert / The Canadian Press

Ottawa - The forest industry will take a major hit from forest fires caused by global warming in coming decades, says University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler.

Such fires could top fossil fuels as a source of greenhouse gas emissions unless climate change is curbed, said Schindler, one of Canada's most eminent scientists.

"My guess is that with climate warming, forestry will take a big hit," he said in an interview Wednesday. "Right now the rates of forest cutting generally don't consider burning rates at all."

Schindler says burning rates in the Western boreal forest have doubled since 1970s. The term boreal refers to forests dominated by spruce and pine, which cover vast expanses of the North.

The major reason for the increased burning is a rise in average temperatures of 1.5 C, he said. Computer models predict average temperatures in the region will increase another 2 C in the next 20 years.

"If we go up another two degrees we could see at least another doubling in the incidence of forest fire," he said.

Schindler said fire suppression in Canada was effective from the 1940s to the 1970s, but there were many bad fire years in the '80s and '90s, and some of the big fires are uncontrollable.

"You could have the whole U.S. air force dropping water and you wouldn't be able to contain them."

Not only do forest fires destroy valuable economic and ecological resources, they also release heat-trapping carbon dioxide, considered the most important greenhouse gas.

"We could potentially get ourselves into a jam where our rates of carbon dioxide loss from forestry could exceed what we're putting out as fossil fuels. While we can control our fossil fuels we can't control our forest fires.

"That is what we call a positive feedback, it would aggravate the effects of climate warming that we're already seeing from fossil fuels. I think the prudent thing to do is try to avoid that scenario as much as possible."

He said the entire boreal forest is threatened, and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein is presenting a one-sided picture when he warns of economic damage from compliance with the Kyoto treaty, without mentioning the effects of climate change.

The emissions cuts called for in the treaty are not adequate to stop climate change but they are a start, he said.

"If we act now, stop fiddling around, so we get levelling off ... we may be able to retain a good part of the boreal."

Copyright 2002 The Halifax Herald Limited