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Ecosystems

The word ecosystem begins with “eco” derived from the Greek word oikos meaning house or home. Ecosystems comprise our “home systems” creating a web of relationships that sustains life.

There are a number of important terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems in the Ring of Fire area including the boreal forest, or taiga, the Earth’s largest terrestrial ecosystem, and the Hudson Bay Lowlands, North America’s largest wetland. These systems have evolved over millenia. Their conservation require humility and holistic thinking if they are to continue to support the people, plants, and animals that live there while providing “benefits” from climate regulation to cultural values to those that live beyond the region.

Breathing Lands

An aerial view of boreal peatlands in the Ring of Fire

White Birch

Muskeg (also known as Peatlands)

Peatlands cover

%

of the Earth's surface

but store over

%

of Earth's soil carbon

1/4

  • 25% 25%

of the world’s peatlands 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 peatlands across Canada may be up to

years old

All life contains water. Wetlands are intimately associated with water and are one of the most productive habitats on Earth supporting many kinds of plants and animals and people. Wetlands form at the interface of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and have features of both.

The Hudson Bay Lowland (the Hudson Plains ecozone as shown on the map) is the largest peatland in North America, and the second largest peatland in the world. Peatlands are a type of wetland where the waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from decomposing – instead, this dead organic matter accumulates in a special type of soil called peat. 

Peat soils are incredible carbon stores – peatlands store more carbon in their soils than other types of ecosystems. Peatlands cover only 3% of the Earth’s surface, but contain >25% of all global soil carbon. The peat soils in the Hudson Bay Lowland are 2m – 4m deep and very old – it has taken thousands of years to accumulate the layers of peat in the Hudson Bay Lowland. 

If peatlands are destroyed or damaged (for example, if peat is removed, or if a peatland area is drained) then peatlands start to release the stored carbon to the atmosphere, increasing our overall greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to global climate warming. So, it is important to protect intact peatlands, and restore damaged peatlands, in order for peatlands to keep playing an important role as long-term carbon stores among other critical functions  

The sub-Arctic environment that defines the Hudson Bay Lowland means the soil in northern places is permanently frozen creating permafrost peatlands – thawing of permafrost peatlands can also cause the peatlands to release the stored carbon.  

Because it took thousands of years for the peat to accumulate, if the peat in the Hudson Bay Lowland is destroyed or damaged, the carbon lost will not be recovered within our lifetimes, or on a timescale to meet climate change targets. 

Learn more about northern peatlands where the Ring of Fire occurs in this WCS Canada StoryMap. 

Peatlands and mining claims in the Ring of Fire. Meg Southee/WCS Canada (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mining Ontario’s Ring of Fire could help build green energy — but also damage vital peatlands

by CBC's What on Earth? | Podcast

Boreal Forest

Earth’s green circumpolar crown is a northern forest often described as “a sea of land and water with infrequent small islands of human population”. The boreal forest is the Earth’s largest terrestrial ecosystem extending around the northern pole and covering parts of Fennoscandia, Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

This ecosystem has adapted to some of the most difficult climatic conditions on Earth. In doing so, it has also sustained many Indigenous communities and cultures for millennia. More recently, the boreal forest has been valued because of the thousands of jobs it enables and the billions of dollars extracted from this ecosystem. 

Boreal forests comprise the homelands of Indigenous Peoples and cultural landscapes. The governance arrangements affecting boreal forests determines what values are promoted and how boreal forests are conserved and protected. Yet, there are few places left on Earth where the original forest remains in large, relatively natural ecosystems. Canada maintains a global responsiblity for the boreal forest that remains relatively unaffected by industrial development.

The boreal forest that makes up the Ring of Fire is part of the largest single block of boreal forest free from industrial development anywhere in the world and remains largely unprotected except by the efforts of the First Nations that live there.  

An aerial view of boreal forests in the Ring of Fire

Why are boreal forests important?

Much of the boreal forest is composed of water and various types of wetlands. The boreal forest 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 and boreal forests provide habitats for northern cold water fishes.

The boreal forest also stores a globally significant amount of carbon in its soil, trees, and peat. Old-growth forests store the most amount of carbon of any forest phase in the boreal. Climate regulation is an important ecological service of the boreal forest.

Many parts of the boreal forest support predator-prey relationships such as wolves, caribou, moose, and wood bison as well as some of the largest remaining populations of woodland caribou, wolves, and bears.

Boreal forests are homes for globally significant waterfowl, shore bird, and songbird populations.

Ecozones that define the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario. Meg Southee/WCS Canada (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Brook Trout

Freshwater

Water is everywhere, comprised of countless lakes, endless kilometres of rivers, and the wetlands including fens, bogs, marshes and swamps.

The Ring of Fire overlaps with the Hudson Bay Lowland Ecozone, the largest wetland and peatland complex in North America and the second largest in the world. 

It is connected to a large, intact network of freshwater ecosystems (lakes, rivers, wetlands, peatlands), including five major free-flowing rivers that flow to the Hudson and James Bay 

There are five long (>500km) or very long (>1000km) rivers that are still free-flowing and without dams, industry, other flow alteration – these long, free-flowing rivers are increasingly rare. 

Fish communities in this part of Ontario are among the most unaltered by human activities in North America.