Light on the Arctic Horizon

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 6:55 PM EST

They may not officially constitute a tipping point, but the forests that line the Artic Circle hold massive potential to speed up or slow down global warming.

Nearly half of the greenhouse gas carbon that exists on land is contained in these forests, much of it in permafrost. If the permafrost melts, the peat and other plant matter trapped in it would decay, releasing carbon which would, in turn, speed the melting. The trees also store carbon.

Development, mining and logging account for a quarter of the carbon loss in forests, so new Canadian initiatives to give financial perks for preserving land in that country's so-called "boreal forests" could have some positive effect. Boreal forests in Canada and Scandinavia are likely to be better cared for than those in the U.S. and Russia, whose environmental records, frankly, suck. Canada is also exploring options to sequester carbon dioxide in these relatively pristine lands—a practice that seems questionable, but may be the best option—after reducing our carbon emissions—for keeping our feet out of nature's fire.

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