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Underground powerhouse: Canada’s vast soil carbon stores

Underground powerhouse

Canada’s vast soil carbon stores

Underground powerhouse

Canada’s vast soil carbon stores

By Emily Jerome, National Environmental Treasure

New research shows there’s a vast amount of carbon buried in Canada’s soil. It has implications for climate action and protected areas.

Thick stands of boreal forest and ancient old-growth canopies often come to mind when thinking about carbon-rich ecosystems. But, it turns out that soil is the unsung hero of carbon storage in Canada. At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow Scotland, WWF-Canada,  in partnership with McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), announced astonishing new findings that show there’s far more carbon buried in Canadian soil than previously estimated. This has implications for Canada’s climate targets, protected areas and peatlands.

caribou in foggy peatland
Caribou. Photo by Silfox from Getty Images/Canva.

Over the course of two years, researchers used a combination of satellite imagery, field measurements and a computer algorithm to determine that 405 billion tonnes of carbon are stored throughout Canada. To put this number into perspective, it’s equivalent to approximately 30 years of greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity. Of all the carbon residing in Canada, 95% is found within the top metre of soil with the remaining amount stored in plant material including trees. This means that soil contains between 8 to 28 times more carbon than plants.

The link between soil carbon hotspots and peatlands

Manitoba and Ontario claim first and second place for soil carbon by a generous margin, thanks to the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands located within the borders of these two provinces. Not only is the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands the largest peatland complex in Canada, but it’s also the second-largest in the world. Composed of a thick layer of partially decomposed plants, peatlands store five times more carbon than the Amazon rainforest and twice as much carbon as forests worldwide. But, this important peatland system is located within the Ring of Fire where mineral mining projects threaten to disturb these sensitive ecosystems.

James bay lowlands peatlands aerial
James Bay Lowlands. Photo by Photos.com from Photo Images/Canva.

To the far north, peatlands stretch throughout the  Northwest Territories from the Mackenzie River delta to the southern grasslands. Here, soil carbon is locked into many of these peatlands by the frozen conditions of permafrost. According to the report, the climate crisis is expected to amplify permafrost thawing and increase peat fires. Both of which would result in vast amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere, along with methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Why do we need to protect soil carbon?

Integral to meeting Canada’s zero-emissions target and leading climate action is protecting and investing in nature-based climate solutions including carbon-dense ecosystems like peatlands. In fact, a 2021 study in Science Advances found that nature-based climate solutions could offset 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada yearly. This means that protecting ecosystems like peatlands could provide one-third of the emissions reductions to meet 2030 targets in the Paris Agreement.

Clouds of emissions
Photo by Pixource from pixabay/Canva.

Many of these areas also have cultural value for Indigenous communities. As Vern Cheechoo, Director of Lands and Resources at the Mushkegowuk Council said about the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands, “These carbon-rich areas are known as the “breathing lands” to our Elders, and hold significant cultural value for the communities in the region.” The WWF Canada recommends the creation of a Carbon Guardians program to provide the opportunity for Indigenous communities to be involved in monitoring peatland areas. 

Since carbon-rich areas have now been identified, this can help guide the creation of protected areas and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). “Knowing where carbon is stored in Canada allows us to strategically protect and manage the right places,” said Megan Leslie, WWF-Canada President and CEO. Not only will this keep carbon in the ground, but it will also protect the biodiversity that relies on these ecosystems including at-risk species like caribou and whooping cranes. On a larger scale, increasing protected areas and IPCAs can help reach two important targets, (1) the 2019 federal government commitment to protecting 25% of land and water by 2025 and (2) the COP15 draft target of protecting 30% of land and water by 2030.

How can you help?

1. Contact the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks with the Government of Ontario to express your support for protecting the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands.  Email: minister.mecp@ontario.ca

2. Contact the Minister of Environment and Climate Change with the Government of Canada to express your support for creating protected areas and IPCAs in carbon-rich ecosystems. Email: Steven.Guilbeault@parl.gc.ca

3. Learn more about IPCAs by watching the Indigenous Voices Speaker series and reading about Indigenous worldviews.