When it comes to tree cover loss, the spotlight usually rests on midlatitude hot spots like Brazil and Indonesia, where agriculture, logging and other development have threatened the existence of rainforests for years.

But an analysis released today by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank reveals that people worried about the world's forests may want to turn their attention north.

According to new data from the World Resources Institute's Global Forest Watch initiative, Russia and Canada saw "massive" forest losses in 2013. The nations had the top two highest annual average tree cover losses in the world between 2011 and 2013, WRI data show, at an estimated 10.7 million acres in Russia and 6.1 million acres in Canada.

On the other hand, Indonesia—which is ranked the No. 1 deforester in the world—saw a "substantial" decline in tree cover loss in 2013, the new analysis found, although experts said it's too soon to say the nation has solved its deforestation problem.

In Canada and Russia, wildfires were likely the biggest driver of forest cover loss in 2013, WRI reported. The think tank cited higher temperatures and dry conditions linked to climate change as key factors behind the trend. Research by Canada's Forest Service found that in 2013, the nation saw more than 10 million acres consumed in wildfires. Greenpeace Russia reported a big spike in wildfires over the past three years, as well.

WRI's data only extended to 2013, but last summer, millions more acres of forest burned in northern Canada amid a record-breaking heat wave (ClimateWire, July 16, 2014). Canadian forest managers anticipate that 2015 might also be a bad fire season (ClimateWire, March 31).

Nigel Sizer, global director of WRI's Forests Program, said the nature of Canada's and Russia's forest cover loss is different from much of the deforestation in the tropics because the land isn't being converted to cropland, so the trees will grow back at some point. But Sizer added that in the context of climate change, the trend is still "very concerning."

"These fires and these emissions do need to factor in some way into the national carbon accounting for these countries," Sizer said.

Concerns about peat fires worsening climate change
Mike Flannigan, director of the University of Alberta's Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science who was not involved with the analysis, said it's important to note that wildfires are a part of northern boreal forests' ecology.

"It's part of a natural cycle," said Flannigan, explaining that northern forests "have characteristics that allow them to thrive, or at least survive, after a fire."

But Flannigan said there is research to support WRI experts' statement that climate change is probably making Canada's forests vulnerable to bigger, more frequent blazes. What's especially worrisome is that carbon-rich peat soils that have been accumulating for thousands of years are spread across much of this landscape, he said.

The total climate impact of forest losses in the north is still uncertain, Flannigan said, but if the peat lands in Russia and Canada continue to dry and burn more often, "there could be a significant positive feedback."

Sizer of WRI said that in trying to reduce global emissions, Canadian and Russian policymakers should attempt to limit human-caused wildfires, as well as other forms of forest clearing. In a blog post published last year, WRI drew attention to forest losses linked to oil sands mining in Alberta.

Olga Gershenzon, who chairs the board of Russian nongovernmental organization Transparent World, said in a statement the analysis "should be a clear call to action to look closely at forest management in Russia and Canada in the face of climate change."

Indonesia may be 'simply running out of forest'
At the same time, the new analysis showed some encouraging data for the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia—the nation's annual tree average cover loss reached its lowest point recorded since 2003, WRI found, at 3.9 million acres.

Last year, satellite data from the University of Maryland showed that Indonesia supplanted Brazil as the world's No. 1 deforester due to widespread agricultural development and logging (ClimateWire, June 30, 2014).

It's not yet clear what caused Indonesia's forest cover losses to drop, WRI said, but the organization cited multiple factors that could be at play, such as a government moratorium on new licenses to businesses to convert forests, the decline of global palm oil prices and an upwelling of corporate "zero-deforestation" pledges.

Indonesia Minister of Environment and Forests Siti Nurbaya welcomed this finding, saying in a statement, "This new information tells a very positive story about Indonesia's forests," adding that if the trend holds true, "this could be a powerful indicator that Indonesia's significant investments in forest protection are paying off."

But experts warned that it's too soon to say that Indonesia has solved its deforestation problem. Matt Hansen, a remote sensing scientist with the University of Maryland who was a major contributor to WRI's analysis, said that while efforts to stop forest clearing may be helping, some parts of Indonesia may be "simply running out of forest."

"One year doesn't make a trend, for sure," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500