Boreal Shield – A Changing Landscape

Amanda Filipowicz, CNP, BES
Boreal Shield

The Boreal Shield, Canada’s Northern Mosaic

Encompassing approximately 35% of Canadian land, from amidst the northern tundra of the Yukon Territory to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, is the illustrious Boreal forest, Canada’s largest biome. Magnificent and monumental, it occupies 77% of Canada’s forested land, a majority of which is characterized by coniferous trees. However, it is a diverse biome, enveloped by needle-leaved coniferous trees such as the pine and fir, broadleaved trees and shrubs, such as the poplar and willow, lichens and mosses. In collaboration with the numerous fires and insects that confuse its foliage annually, the boreal forest has come to be known for its “mosaic” appearance (n.a., 2004).

Despite the boreal’s brief growing season, cold temperatures and improvised soil conditions, it can be divided into two distinct zones; the subtractive open lichen woodlands and the closed crown forest. The Lichen woodland is characterized by its open-canopies of spruce, pine, and fir and for its carpet-like cover of yellow-green and grey lichens. The Crown forest has a composition containing far more trees, which grow tall and close together. The forest floors are melded with a combination of mosses herbs and shrubs, as a result of its more fertile soil composition. Apart from its massive size, the boreal shield is prone (ibid) to numerous disturbances such as forest fires, insect infestations, and humans, the latter being the most problematic (n.a., 2004).


A Hypothetical future for the Boreal Shield

Climate change is at present affecting the Boreal shield in numerous ways. However, is a hypothetical future, per se by the year 2100, or when the atmospheric CO2 levels are at twice the level of which they are at present, what will become of the boreal shield? As was noted previously, the boreal region in Canada is predominantly encompassed by coniferous tree species. The coniferous trees, based on fossil records have been around since the Miocene Epoch, some 12 to 15 million years ago. They have dealt with numerous changes in the climate; they have evolved and adapted to withstand harsh climates, fires, and ice ages. As a result in terms of changes to the physical environment, this tree species is likely to survive, as are many others. To gather a full understanding of the changes that may occur in a hypothetical world the boreal forest will be broken down into parts, each of which will be analyzed in terms of its potential climate change effects (ibid).

Flora – canopies, and undergrowth

In the year 2100, with the worlds, CO2 doubled from that of 2011, the physical appearance of the boreal shield has changed substantially. As the temperature of the region has changed, the soil composition has changed. The soil has loosened, there has been an increase in void space through the activity of organisms, such as earthworms, and physical processes such as leaching and weathering. With an increase in temperature, some plant species will have the upper hand over others. For increase, the size of shrubs and herbs may increase as a result of the longer growing season, which will be brought about by the increase in (Molles, M.C., 2010) temperature. However, the law of species tolerance must be considered, for although shrubs may grow larger, and coniferous trees will be able to adapt, other tree species have their environmental limitations. The law of limitations regulates that the upper and lower bounds of physical factors an organism can tolerate. As a result, certain flora will not be able to tolerate the warmer climate, or the change in soil composition (Molles, M.C., 2010) (n.a., 2004).

With the increase in temperature, will be an increase in fires. The heat and the dry winds will cause exceptional fire potential within the boreal shield. Although forest fires are naturally occurring at present, and many boreal plant species rely on the burnt forest floor for re-growth, the combination of abiotic factors, fire, soil dynamic, and temperature, will result in other organisms responding to the new environmental conditions, producing the outcome of new species in the boreal forest. New species may come from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, or the Great Plains (n.a., 2004) (E.d. Hackett & Miller, 2008).

The introduction of these new species will bring about competition. As is stated in the law of competitive exclusion, no two species can occupy the same niche and live off of the same resources for an extended period of time. One of them will need to either mitigate, become extinct, or lower their resource needs. The competition that the boreal shield may have with new invasive species of plants can be for instance competition for bees, in terms of flowing times. To resolve this issue the plants will either have to shift in flowing time or learn to adapt to the changing predicament (ibid).

Moreover, the introduction of new species may also cause a change in the ordering of the two ecological regions. There is a possibility that there might be a fluctuation change, which is to say that a change in the conditions of the ecosystem, in the boreal shield case, temperature and soil quality, will lead to a difference in flowing seep production and survivorship, as a result, the previous species of the area will not come back and instead the area will be occupied by the more compatible species. This may also happen in the north. As the temperature increases and the permafrost melt always in the tundra the conditions may become adequate for the boreal forest to expand northwards. Thus, in conclusion, with an increase in CO2 levels by the year 2100, it is likely that the boreal forest will shift in its geographic location, making its way northwards, as other flora eat way at its southern regions (n.a., 2004) (E.d. Hackett & Miller, 2008) (Molles, M.C., 2010).


As was expressed above, in the future, forest fires will become more numerous. This will result in more than just introducing new tree species into the boreal region; it will result in the release of carbon. The Boreal forest is the largest carbon sink in Canada, as well as North America. As a result in the future, even a little amount will hinder the planet (ibid).

Insect Infestation

E.O.Wilson, in The Creation, stated: ” …if insects were to vanish, the terrestrial environment would soon collapse into chaos” (page 34). The Boreal forests have numerous forest defoliators, three of which are “the spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana […]), the jack pine budworm (C.pinus Freeman), and the forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria Hubner). They eradicate tree species, and bring about the loss of carbon captors; moreover, with the changing climate, their unfavorable damage will affect and change outbreak patterns. In the 2100 hypothetical future, with CO2 levels doubled from that of present conditions, the effects of these three forest defoliators will be extraordinary. In a 2000 study by Fleming and Volney, on the effects the three forest defoliators have on “the current balance of the boreal forest carbon budget” (page 284), it was discovered that the insects are sensitive to the changing climate.

Their survival is relied upon the development of buds, as a result of warmer climates, as long as they awaken on time they have a higher likely hood of surviving. However, in the northern regions of the boreal forest, with early spring forest encasing the buds of trees, many of the insects have perished as a result of lack of food. Based on this information their survival in the future is quite undetermined. However, one aspect that is associated with these three insects is the use of heavy pesticides to eliminate their existence in the boreal forest. Aerial spraying over large areas for numerous years will be deadly for the environment. The elimination of these defoliating insects may be a benefit to the boreal forest, notwithstanding, as E.O. Wilson said, “it would be a serious mistake to let even one species out of the millions on Earth go extinct” (page 35). The side effects of extensive pesticide use will affect the entire food web within the forest. It will affect the birds that eat the insects, the snake that eats the bird and the hawk that eats the snake. In a hypothetical future, the pesticide accumulation may cause the displacement of a keystone species, resulting in the offset of the entire food web of the boreal shield (Fleming, & Volney, 2000).

Ice Caps of Canada

In the year 2100, with CO2 levels doubled from present numbers and on the rise, it is very likely that the Canadian government has proceeded to extract the remanding drops of oil from the Arctic. As no extraction of oil can be risk-free, it is also very likely that spills will occur. As a result of underwater currents and runoff, the boreal shield is very likely to become victim to the technological disaster resulting in drastic impacts on numerous species. The soil will be affected resulting in a snowball effect. A change in the dynamics of the soil will affect the survival of trees and flora and all species that either relies on the trees and flora directly or indirectly. Soil texture is a combination of sand, silt, and clay, each amount proportionate to the ecosystem of the boreal forest, however, the slightest change in their dynamic will lead to the incapability of the soil to anchor plant roots, supply roots with water, furnish nutrients for plant growth and much more. The soil is extremely fragile, half of the volume of the soil is solid particles half is pore spaces filled with air which vary on geographic location, if the oil is added, everything changes and everything will be affected (Leggett, 2005).

Human Adaptation

Apart from being ecologically rich in species diversity, the boreal shield is also home to human sectors, such as agriculture, tourism, and local and regional transportation. As the boreal shield encompasses practically all of Canada it also is affected by each of its distinctive agricultural providers. In Ontario, there is a lot of farming operations on the outskirts and within the boreal forest. Ontario produces a great deal of the countries fruits and vegetables, as well as its meats and dairy. The ever-growing number of intensive livestock operations and well as the increased use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms are having an effect on the region. Agriculture is important to the boreal region because it directly affects the ecology of the ecosystem through pesticide use and invasive species (Currie, Gibbs, & Mackey, 2009).

Tourism, in the way of the boreal forest, is primarily designated for outdoor activity, such as camping and hiking as well as summer cottages by the numerous boreal lakes. The boreal shield beauty is both protected in national parks and designated conservation areas. This sector is important to the boreal region for it provides funding for conservation projects as well as education and awareness so that people can understand how their actions at home affect places far away (n.a. 2004).

Finally, local and regional transportation is somewhat minimal there as traffic is much less in comparison to that of the city. Highways often only have two lanes and smaller one lane roads are more common. Transportation is important to the boreal region for it is the process by which traffic is brought into the area. It is both the connection to the forest for the logging industry and for conservation workers (Leggett, 2005).

Climate change effects on these three sectors

To look into the same hypothetical future of 2100 with increases in overall CO2 levels, it is very likely that all three sectors will see great changes. Agricultural changes maybe the introduction of new species, if the temperature rises it may be possible to grow tropical plants. Moreover as land becomes more fertile up north, agricultural practices may move there, either because the human population has once again expanded or, that previous agricultural land has succumbed to desertification (Currie, Gibbs, & Mackey, 2009).

With so many negative impacts placed on the Boreal shield, it is very likely that many of the previously popular conservation areas may be closed so as to help the forest regenerate itself. Transportation, on the other hand, may increase and improve, from an economic viewpoint, in the area. If the oil is derived from the north, and the temperature increases enough to make the permafrost melt, it is very likely that roads will be build from the southern areas of Canada, through the boreal shield and up into the Canadian territories to make transportation of raw materials easier for corporations and businesses (Leggett, 2005).

However, there is always a chance to mitigate such acts. In terms of agriculture, in order to prevent invasive species from entering that boreal region, monoculture should be abolished and with it the use of genetically modified organisms. Food should be grown locally, within 100 miles of consumers and produced as organically as possible. In terms of tourism, national parks should have limits to the number of people that are allowed in at a time, moreover, the parks should be given time to regenerate from human contact. Transportation is the most important, so much can go wrong. Be focusing on local businesses, not only in terms of food, or instead of transporting by truck, using more trains, ecological damage from producing more roads and expanding existing roads as well as all the maintenance that goes along with such work, it would be easier to discard it from the beginning and look into more ecologically sound ways of transportation. All of these proposed adaptations for each of the sections are quite reasonable and acceptable tradeoffs. They use existing and effective ideas and resources to get the job done. Trains need to become more affordable and more heavily used by the transportation industry. It gets trucks off the roads; it reduces congestion which in turn reduces pollution (Pawlick, 2009).

It is hard to say in terms of transportation and agriculture, however with the increase in climate change their effects will more than likely be negative. However for tourism in a superficial sense, the benefits will be positive. The tourist season in southern Ontario will be open longer during the spring, summer and autumn months. Northern areas will be introduced to a heavier winter tourist flow as southern areas will most likely have less snow, thus a shorter skiing and snowboarding season.

All in all, the effects of climate change are not beneficial to the Boreal forest, especially with the rate at which temperature is rising. Species do not have enough time to adapt, and thus will have to face the consequences. There is so much that can be done to prevent further increases in CO2 levels, however, the issue is getting people to change, which means breaking habits, which is something that is easier said than done.

Literature Cited

Currie, D.J., Gibbs, K.E., & Mackey, R.L. (2009). Human land use, agriculture, pesticides and losses of imperiled species. Diversity and Distributions, 15, 242-253.

Fleming, R.A., Volney, W.J.A. (2000). Climate change and impacts of boreal forest insects.Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 82, 283-294.

(Ed). Hackett, D & Tyler, M, JR. (2008). Living in the Environment. Canada: Nelson.

Leggett, J. (2005). The Empty Tank, Oil, Gas, hot Air, and the coming Global FinancialCatastrophe. New York: Random House Inc.

Molles, M. C. (2010). Ecology Concepts and Applications. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pawlick, T.F. (2009). The War in the Country. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

Wison, E.O. (2006). The Creation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

The Atlas of Canada. (2004). Boreal Forest. Retrieved November 20, 2011, from

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