Canada’s Northern Peatlands: What Happens When ‘The Breathing Lands’ Stop Breathing?

The ‘Ring of Fire’ region in the Breathing Lands, ON (image by Garth Lenz, WCS Canada

The overlapping Hudson and James Bay Lowlands in northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are pockmarked by millennia-old peatlands—a dense and globally significant repository of carbon. This northern area also contains the “Ring of Fire”—extensive mineral deposits coveted by international mining corporations—located upstream of the traditional territory of the seven First Nations that form the Mushkegowuk Council. The traditional territory of the Mushkegowuk Cree encompasses the largest network of peatland in the world, book-ended by subarctic permafrost in the far north and boreal forest to the south. In a bid for further long term stewardship (the Cree have been stewarding these lands for thousands of years), the Mushkegowuk Cree have called for a development moratorium on mining and industrial roads while necessary environmental assessment is completed.

Peatlands and the Boreal Zone in Canada (image by WCS Canada)

Canada’s Northern Peatlands

Peatlands are ancient ecological systems that take thousands of years to form their characteristic layer of absorbent organic soil. These wetland ecosystems are essentially waterlogged ground—much of it permafrost—where the decay of dead plants slows and over long periods of time gradually build-up to form peat soils, rich in carbon. Usually a few metres deep, peatlands support highly specialized plant species adapted to wet ground conditions, such as Sphagnum mosses, sedges, various shrubs, trees and lichens.

The largest peatland complexes in Canada occur in northern Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec, as well as northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Peatlands occur mostly in the Boreal Zone, a region of high ecological function. The Hudson Bay Lowland—which is the size of Germany—is the second largest peatland complex in the world. It covers parts of northern Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec and much of it lies within the traditional territories of several First Nations.

Hudson Bay Lowland peatlands in Canada (image by WCS Canada)

Peatland ecosystems are also highly sensitive to impacts; if left undisturbed they provide a host of important ecological benefits including maintaining high biodiversity, water storage, and a carbon sink for climate regulation. Like tropical and temperate rainforests, the peatlands sequester a huge amount of carbon, storing an estimated 35 billion tonnes in Ontario’s far north alone. In fact, the below-ground carbon stores in northern peatlands is about five times that of tropical forests; they also remain there—if left undisturbed—for up to 7,000 years. The rainforest carbon turn-over is much shorter at around 100-500 years, and its carbon store is mostly above-ground.

Image by WCS Canada

Peatlands also provide important water storage and critical habitat for many wildlife—caribou, wolverines and migratory birds to name just a few. The extensive coastal marshes of the James Bay area provide critical breeding and staging grounds for arctic and sub-arctic shorebirds. Its yet undammed rivers carry large quantities of nutrients and organic material, making the coastal zone highly productive for biodiversity.

Peatlands and the Carbon Cycle

Carbon builds up slowly in peatlands, taking hundreds to thousands of years. Carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide and methane is naturally released slowly from northern peatlands through plant respiration, organic matter decomposition, fires and permafrost thaw. Globally, peatlands hold almost twice as much carbon as forests, despite only occupying 3% of the Earth’s surface, a quarter of which is in Canada. The Hudson Bay Lowlands have remained relatively undisturbed, unlike other places where peatland has been drained for agriculture or flooded for hydroelectric dams. Disturbance of these northern peatlands would release a massive amount of stored carbon into the atmosphere over a short time, much of it in the form of methane. One molecule of methane is as much as 80 times more potent at heat-trapping as a molecule of carbon dioxide.

There is good reason why the elders of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation call the northern peatlands the “Breathing Lands.” Located mostly in the boreal zone, this complex of muskeg, bog and forest is considered by the elders the “lungs of the Earth.”

“For hundreds of kilometers in all directions the forest [and peatland] has never been logged or fragmented, remaining much as it has been since shortly after the glaciers retreated 9,000 years ago,” writes Allan Lissner of Alternatives Journal. The boreal zone and associated peatland represents the largest carbon storehouse on Earth – a critical buffer against runaway climate change – and also forms part of the planet’s greatest reservoir of freshwater. “The elders of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Innunuwug (KI) First Nation know that local water flows through their blood, and that their bodies are built of the trout that swim in [the land’s] clean rivers and lakes. Taking care of their watershed is a sacred responsibility handed down to the KI youth from the Creator through the teachings of their elders.”

Unfortunately, the breathing lands are at risk. Climate change will lead to longer droughts that will dry out the peatlands and release stored carbon. Permafrost thaw will also accelerate carbon emissions. And then there’s the “Ring of Fire”…

The Scorching ‘Ring of Fire’

The “Ring of Fire” is an area of long-planned mining development just upstream of the traditional territory of the Mushkegowuk Cree. It was first discovered in 2007, which led to a massive rush of mining companies staking claims in the area. Chromite, used to manufacture a key component of stainless steel, was identified as a key resource by companies including Noront. Impacts from the extraction process and related infrastructure such as roads and transmission lines would pose a severe impact to the peatlands, resulting in massive carbon release. And once disturbed, these peatlands will not naturally recover, says Anne Baggio, director of conservation planning for Wildlands League.

In 2008, Patinex Inc. sued the KI community for ten billion dollars. The Ontario government put six community leaders in jail, including the chief and several council members for refusing to allow mining exploration. While the “KI-6” were locked up, hundreds of supporters marched through Toronto’s Financial District and camped in Queen’s Park. Eventually, the Ontario government paid Platinex five million to abandon their claim. To discourage further high-profile conflicts and costly buy-outs, the province withdrew about half of KI’s watershed from all mining activity. This was done without the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the community and without the recognition of the people’s right to protect their entire watershed. Half of the watershed remained open to mining exploration—inviting more incendiary conflicts.

In 2011, nine First Nations signed a “unity declaration” asserting their common rights to self-determination and consent prior to development. That was followed by the signing of a regional framework agreement with the province of Ontario in 2014 and the Matawa Jurisdiction Table in 2017. Now four years later, it’s all still a mess: some first nations support and others oppose mining development; the pro-mining Ontario government pushes mine development at the expense of the environment by expediting the permitting process and staking of mining claims—despite protests from First Nations and before results from the federal regional assessment are reported.

“Debates about the future of the muskeg — as a carbon sink or wildlife conservation area — are deeply intertwined with conflicting visions about industrial development, resource jobs, infrastructure and culture,” writes Wilt in The Narwhal

It doesn’t help that in 2019, findings published by Maria Strack and her research team at the University of Waterloo concluded that seismic exploration conducted for Alberta’s oil and gas industry disturbed at least 1,900 square kilometres of peatland and increased methane emissions by 4,400 to 5,100 metric tonnes per year. Methane has 25 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide.

Image by The Conversation

“The huge significance of such a big intact ecosystem globally has not been really absorbed in Ontario,” says Dayna Nadine Scott, research chair in environmental law and justice in the green economy at York University, who submitted a formal request to the federal environment minister for a regional assessment on behalf of the Osgoode Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic. “That’s hopefully something the federal government can see as part of its central mandate.”

In my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water,” the young Gwich’in University of Toronto grad student Bobby Jo Firth discovers that her family and their small community in northern Northwest Territories perished in a thaw slump, debris slide and flash flood. While this is a work of fiction, its premise lies in the precedence of historic events (observed by elders and recorded by scientists). With intensified warming and rainfall, the risk continues to increase of thermokarst slumping in the permafrost north; risk is further exacerbated by human-induced disturbance such as road/rail construction, mine extraction and infrastructure, and draining peatlands for development.

“Peatlands are an important natural climate solution.”

WCS Canada

When the northern peatlands stop breathing and expire (both carbon and their own existence), their demise will contribute to our own expiration. “For northern peatlands to be part of the solution, we also need to focus on strategies that will reduce projected carbon emissions from these natural ecosystems due to human activities,” writes Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

Peatlands response to disturbance (image by WCS Canada)

Wildlife Conservation Society Canada makes the following recommendations to help keep these peatlands intact and keep the carbon in the ground:

  • Increase our understanding of how human activities affect carbon emissions from northern peatlands, including the impacts on future emissions of increased industrial activities that alter or remove peatlands and incorporate the cost of additional carbon emissions due to development prior to approving projects.
  • Design and support financial mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions associated with peatlands.
  • Invest in Indigenous Guardians to help monitor and protect northern peatlands and to manage IPCAs that protect carbon storehouses.
  • Ensure that the national carbon accounting system accurately reflects carbon storehouses in northern peatlands and boreal ecosystems.
  • Develop a Pan-Canadian Peatlands Strategy that coordinates and creates policies and incentive schemes that recognize the need for the protection and restoration of peatlands across provinces and territories within the context of Pathway to Canada Target 1.

The WCS Canada report concludes: “By protecting peatlands, we can address both climate change and biodiversity loss by maintaining areas rich in carbon and species. Protection of these unique systems is key to meeting Canada’s targets to reduce carbon emissions and conserve biodiversity.”

References:

Lissner, Allan. 2013. “The Breathing Lands.” Alternatives Journal, February 28, 2013.

Wilt, James. 2020. “The battle for the ‘breathing lands’: Ontario’s Ring of Fire and the fate of its carbon-rich peatlands.” The Narwhal, July 11, 2020.

Richardson, Karen and Justina Ray. 2021. “Northern Peatlands in Canada.” Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

Marsh in Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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