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Satellite images show tar sands extraction obliterating Boreal forest right before our eyes

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted July 15, 2014

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Today, the Global Forest Watch program of the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Global Forest Watch Canada released maps of forest loss in the tar sands region of Alberta, in the heart of Canada’s Boreal forest.  These maps make very clear how prevalent the forest loss is in and around the tar sands operations.  The map below shows forest loss over the span of twelve years in red points - slowly eating up chunks of forest until 2010.  Then in 2010, huge areas of intact forest around Ft. McMurray and in the Athabasca River watershed literally disappear before your eyes.  The forest loss is so complete that by 2013, most of the map is red. In this short period of time, an area covering over 450,000 hectares or roughly the size of Rhode Island has seen one fifth of its Boreal forest ecosystem of trees, fens and marshes cleared, some due to forest fires but the rest due presumably to the creation of the large open-faced mines that predominate the tar sands region.

Over the same period of time there has been little forest gain.  Instead the map shows the gain – in blue points – remaining nearly static as the red of forest loss accelerates around them.  The data, collected by successive satellite images, is in direct contrast to the picture the government of Alberta and industry has attempted to paint of reclamation and tree growth on previously mined areas. 


The next map shows the forest concessions in the Alberta Boreal as opposed to other parts of Canada.  The map shows a giant red area around the tar sands region and another area just south of the region.  It is easy to see that no other province shows this kind of Boreal forest concession (license given on public land to extract resources).  It helps explain why the forest loss in the tar sands region exceeds the rate of loss in other countries that also have major forest industrialization, including in the U.S., Russia, and Brazil.   It also paints a grim picture of the future for this region.


And the impact on wildlife is far greater than what is shown on the maps.  In the blog that accompanies the maps, the Global Forest Watch team sites studies that predict that the disrupted habitat of wildlife will likely be ten times the area of disturbed land. 

This impact was most recently documented in a report issued by the National Wildlife Federation in June.  It found that, as of 2010, 43 species of internationally protected birds had already suffered fatalities from tar sands extraction and that 130 species of protected birds were under threat.  These include some of the birds most iconic to the Boreal region – the Whooping Crane, the Common Loon, the Snow Goose, the Wood Duck, and Trumpeter swans.  But there are many others – like the American Goldfinch, the Great Blue Heron, cedar waxwings and pileated wood peckers that are our “backyard” birds – that are also at great risk. 

Nearly 300 species of birds breed in the Boreal of Northeastern Alberta.  According to the NWF report, tar sands extraction is expected to reduce the population of these birds by 10-50%.  In real numbers, this means a potential loss of as many as 72 million hatchlings over the next forty years.  This, combined with climate change impacts (the water flow of the Athabasca River is expected to decrease by 30%), spells a scary future for our North American birds and wildlife. 

whooping_crane01.jpg  Credit: Laura Erickson, Journey North, Annenburg Media (

Over fifteen years ago, the World Resources Institute (WRI) launched a report that changed the face of forest conservation.  Its report, entitled The Last Frontier Forests:  Ecosystems and Economies on the Edge, chronicled the loss of forests around the world. It also legitimized campaign efforts aimed at protecting forests in the temperate and Boreal zones. The report found that half of the world’s forest had been lost in the second half of the 20th century and that one fifth of what remained was found in a few large tracts of forested landscapes – dubbed by WRI as “Frontier Forests.”  Two of the three countries housing 70% of the “Frontier Forests” were northern countries – Canada and Russia.  Brazil was the third.  And most of the forest was located in the Boreal, best known for its northern lights, or Aurora Borealis.  The report revolutionized how we thought about forests, adding the large, almost Serengeti-like forests of the north to prior global forest conservation work aimed mainly at protecting the last of biologically rich tropical forests. 

Alberta’s Boreal is a big chunk of Canada’s Boreal forest, which is in turn the largest intact area of Boreal forest in the world.  Some call the Boreal “Earth’s Green Crown” because it is the first real forest at the top of the world.  But it is not just Earth’s Green Crown. It is also Earth’s great bird nest and one of our last “Frontier Forests”. 

As the expression goes, photos don’t lie.  Right there – for all of us to see – is the terrible rate of forest loss in one of the most important remaining forests on our planet.  WRI sent out a warning call fifteen years ago that helped spur campaigns that have made a real difference in our northern forests.  But the latest satellite maps show that most of the loss in the tar sands region has happened since the WRI report was released all those years ago. 

Of course, access to the maps is far greater today than it was even a few years ago thanks to the web and widespread access to it.  And add to that the fact that many more people today know about the threats posed by the tar sands extraction. That has been one major benefit of the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, the massive pipeline project that would carry dirty tar sands bitumen across the heartland of the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. Maybe the next set of maps will show the rate of loss slowing.  But until then, we owe WRI and Global Forest Watch Canada a big thanks for once again waking us up to the reality of what is happening in our forests and inspiring us to fight for a better future.

Thumbnail image for LENZ-2.JPG

Credit: Garth Lenz on NRDC trip to Athabaska Delta

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A Proud CanadianJul 15 2014 11:04 PM

So some data for you……

1/5 of 450,000 hectares (or roughly the size of Rhode Island) is 90,000 hectares. Some of which is forest fires. Guess 70,000 hectares
According to Alberta Energy, about 767 square kilometers of land has been disturbed by oil sand mining to date and about one-tenth of that — 77 sq. km — is in the process of being reclaimed.
So 700 square km is 70,000 hectares

About 30% of the world’s boreal zone lies within Canada. In North America the boreal zone covers roughly 627 million hectares, over half of which (362 million hectares) is forest and other wooded land. Canada contains most of the boreal zone, 552 million hectares, including 307 million hectares of forests and other wooded land.

70,000 / 307,000,000 = 0.02% of Canada’s Boreal Forest. And as you can see it is being reclaimed
(although slow to begin with … this should increase)

“The forest loss is so complete……..”

ray delcolleJul 16 2014 07:29 PM

"Global clean energy investment hit a record $260 billion in 2011. That's five times as much as 2004. The shift to clean energy is already happening."

A Proud CanadianJul 16 2014 09:28 PM

great news ray,

any breakdown between private and public money in those numbers?


Bory McDuneJul 17 2014 11:34 AM

While it is true that the mineable oil sands has cleared and disturbed a significant area of the boreal forest, what is not evident from the global forest map is that much of the change in the north end off the animated maps provided comes from forest loss from the 2nd largest fire in Alberta's recorded history. The fires started as lightning strikes in 2011 ... see for ,ore information.

A Proud CanadianJul 18 2014 09:28 PM

Thanks Bory, good point about the fires.
I don't agree that 0.02% is significant though......... and about the opposite end of the spectrum from "......obliterating Boreal forest right before our eyes"

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