Ecosystems

The far north in Ontario is part of the single largest intact area of boreal forest and peatland in the world. It’s a critical store of the world’s carbon, and home to some of the most important and largest untouched ecosystems on Earth.

The systems have evolved over millennia, but are deeply sensitive.

Recent years have seen tremendous political pressure to open the region up to allow for mining exploration, expansion of hydro power, forestry and other industrial activities. But doing so without deep understanding about the possible ecological effects could cause tremendous harm to the region and beyond.

White Birch

Timeline of how these ecosystems developed in northern Ontario

As governments, industry, and some First Nations move toward the promise of economic prosperity through resource extraction, we need to better understand the complexity of these interconnected systems that maintain life throughout the region. Any development that happens must be done with careful thought and consideration of all the values that these ecosystems provide.

What other values do natural resources — like waters, forest and wetlands — provide?

Starting in 2000, the United Nations sponsored work — called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment — to examine the impact of human actions on ecosystems and human well-being. As part of the work, they used a scientific approach called “ecosystem services” to establish different ways that ecosystems provide value to humans. They identified four main categories:

  • Provisioning services, which includes the products that people obtain directly from ecosystems such as food, water, materials for shelter.
  • Regulating services, which include benefits that people receive when ecosystems regulate certain systems, such as the natural filtration of groundwater to make it potable, and air filtration when trees and other plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
  • Cultural services, which includes “no material benefits” that people receive, such as enjoying recreational activities or the beauty of ecosystems, or deriving spiritual connections.
  • Supporting services, which include any additional roles the ecosystems play for the above three services, including the formation of soils and cycling nutrients.

The land and water ecosystems in the far north region in Ontario offer many key services that are important for the global climate and living beings in the area. The value of these natural services need to be considered in decisions about economic opportunities.

Peatlands

The Earth’s surface is covered by

%

Peatlands

But store over

%

of Earth’s soil carbon

Of the world’s peatlands

  • 25% 25%

are in Canada

The Hudson Bay Lowland peatlands store

tonnes of carbon

Which is the equivalent of

years

of Canada’s emissions (at 2019 levels)

Carbon stored in peatland areas across Canada may be up to

years old

One of the two major ecological zones in northern Ontario is the Hudson Bay Lowland, home to the largest peatland complex in North America, and the second largest peatland in the world.

Peatlands are a type of wetland where waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from decomposing — instead, the dead organic matter builds up in a special type of soil called peat. There are many different kinds of peatlands, and the ones in northern Ontario are globally unique because of their vast size and intactness. These peatlands are a massive store of freshwater and provide habitat for many species, including globally significant waterfowl, shore bird, and songbird populations.

Most people think about carbon as being stored above ground in plants and trees, with the carbon being pulled from the atmosphere and locked away in wood and leaves. But soils also hold carbon. In fact, soils hold more than four times as much carbon as compared to all living things on the planet.

Peatland soils are especially important for the planet because they are incredible carbon stores — holding more carbon than other types of ecosystems and locking it away for a long time. Elders from First Nations in the region call the northern peatlands “the Breathing Lands” because they consider the area to act as the lungs of the Earth.

Graphic credit: Lorna Harris / WCS Canada

Graphic credit: Lucy Poley / WCS Canada

The northernmost peatlands in northern Ontario are in a sub-Arctic environment. The cold climate means the soil is permanently frozen in many areas, creating permafrost peatlands. If the permafrost thaws, that can also cause the peatlands to start releasing carbon. With a warming climate, permafrost peatlands are already starting to thaw and release carbon. Climate change is also increasing the severity and extent of wildfires across Canada, which can speed up permafrost thaw in peatlands, and release large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. But intact wet peatlands are more resistant to fire — which is why it’s so important to protect intact peatlands and restore those that are damaged.

In many cases, companies that are proposing development in the region focus on the potential to use technological solutions to minimize impacts to peatlands. But peatlands are very wet ecosystems and are highly sensitive to even small disturbances on the surface. Exploration activities for mining are already having a negative impact. And these companies are only speaking about individual projects, they are not accounting for the cumulative effects that will come from ongoing development and extraction.

We need to have a comprehensive understanding of the effects of development on the peatlands in order to make informed decisions about one of the most significant carbon stores in the world. If we don’t protect the peatlands in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, the carbon released into the atmosphere cannot be recovered within our lifetimes and we will not reach climate change targets.

An aerial view of boreal forests in the Ring of Fire. Photo credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz / WCS Canada

WCS Canada is conducting ongoing research and working toward the conservation of peatlands across northern Ontario and the country. If you want to learn more about their importance and what we need to do to protect our peatlands, you can check out our StoryMap here and our website.

Boreal Forest

Across Canada

There is

%

of the world’s

remaining intact forest ecosystem, including significant wetland areas

Scientists estimate the boreal forest offers

thanks to a range of ecosystem services

In northern Ontario

There is

including peatlands and wetlands

And is home to

species

on the IUCN list of at-risk wildlife

But only

%

of the northern Ontario boreal

The second major ecological zone in northern Ontario is the Boreal Shield. It contains part of the world’s largest tract of boreal forest untouched by industrial development and contains the headwaters of the rivers and streams that flow into the Hudson Bay Lowland. But situated right in the middle of the vast forests and lakes is the Ring of Fire, and the growing push for mining and infrastructure development in the region could put these vital ecosystems at risk.

The Canadian boreal forest has adapted to some of the most difficult climatic conditions on Earth. In doing so, it has sustained many Indigenous communities and cultures for millennia. It also stores more freshwater in its wetlands and lakes than anywhere else on the planet. Water storage, filtration, and purification are all important ecological services of boreal forests. These vast landscapes also provide habitats for northern cold water fish, and support predator-prey relationships as well as some of the largest remaining populations of woodland caribou, wolves and bears. Boreal forests, and the wetlands and peatlands embedded within them, are homes for globally significant populations of waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds.

The boreal forest also stores a globally significant amount of carbon in its soils and trees, and has played a significant role in helping regulate the global climate for thousands of years. Researchers estimate that the boreal forest across Canada contributes $700 billion annually in total economic value thanks to all of these ecosystem services.

For the last several centuries, Canadian governments have been focused on a different kind of economic value. Forestry and other related industries have created thousands of jobs and allowed billions of dollars to be extracted from the boreal forest. But this economic development has come at a cost to our climate, the ecosystems and the Indigenous Peoples and wildlife that exclusively live in and rely on the boreal forest.

Breathing Lands

An aerial view of boreal peatlands in northern Ontario

Photograph by Josef MacLeod

Developing currently intact areas of northern Ontario will cause a significant increase in industrial activity — including the construction of roads, transmission lines and increased access for resource extraction like mining and logging. This will mean caribou and other wildlife will face increased threats from predators and humans, a recipe that has led to the disappearance of these animals in areas further south. The development is proposed to take place even as climate warming is already rapidly altering the forest, with increasingly severe and large wildfires changing the forest landscape and affecting wildlife survival.

If infrastructure and resource development is allowed to move ahead in the boreal forest in northern Ontario, governments and decision-makers need to fully consider how the activities will shape the future of the forest, its waters, people and wildlife, and what the cumulative impacts will be.

Water

Canada’s boreal forest contains roughly

acres

of surface water

And it holds

%

Northern Ontario is home to

of the longest free-flowing rivers

in Canada

More than

live in the region

But the health of these bodies of water are at risk

The Canadian mining sector is the

largest

The industry uses

cubic metres

of fresh water every year

And they discharge

%

directly into water bodies

More than half of the far north in Ontario is covered by lakes, rivers, wetlands and peatlands – this region is more water than land and is highly connected. The water systems are largely unaltered by resource or infrastructure development, including five long (more than 500 kilometres) or very long (more than 1000 kilometres) rivers that are still free-flowing and without dams. Three of Canada’s largest rivers — the Albany, Moose and Severn — cross the region and flow into the Hudson and James Bay.

First Nations settlement patterns have long been associated with waterways, including the selection of key cultural, harvest and burial sites. In 2008, First Nations in Ontario passed a declaration that details their relationship to the waters and the steps they will take to ensure the healing and protection of the waters.

“The ecosystems of the world have been under considerable stress from misuse and abuse. The waters are polluted with chemicals, pesticides, sewage, disease, radioactive water, dumping of waste from mines, dumping from ships in complete violation of the laws of the Creator.”

 

Water Declaration of the First Nations in Ontario, October 2008

The waters are vital for the health of the many fish, wildlife and people that live in the region. But there are concerns from First Nations that any development — such as the construction of roads and bridges, mine tailings ponds and expanded logging operations — could result in increased levels of pollution and affect the fish and wildlife populations that depend on the free-flowing rivers for their habitat and spawning grounds.

Research on aquatic ecosystems in northern Ontario has shown some evidence of industrial pollution in the waterways — particularly traces of mercury in certain aquatic species.

The graphic below demonstrates how mercury in particular can travel very far distances and end up in local fish populations. Mercury can get into our atmosphere from sources like small-scale gold mines or coal-fire burning plants, and then can travel a long way in the atmosphere before it falls onto the landscape in rain, snow or dust. If mercury washes into a lake or river, it can be changed by tiny bacteria into a harmful substance called methylmercury.

Indigenous Peoples living in the far north rely on freshwater fish as an important source of food. This is normally a good thing, because fish are one of the healthiest sources of protein in the world. But eating large volumes of wild fish that contain contaminants, like mercury, can affect human health.

Given the potential for mining to release or generate contaminants, it is important to have adequate assessments and management of cumulative effects to ensure that any potential risk of proposed industrial activities in northern Ontario on the health of freshwater fish species and the people living in the region is minimized.

Climate

The ecosystems throughout the north in Ontario are at risk because of direct industrial and infrastructure development, but also because of a changing climate. Read about the changing climate in northern Ontario.