Scientist keeps tabs on carbon in Canadian forests
Canadian forests are influencing the global climate, and Werner Kurz and his team of scientists are carefully measuring the impact of this carbon-rich natural resource.
An employee of Natural Resources Canada, Werner leads the Canadian Forest Service’s (CFS) Carbon Accounting Team, which analyzes data on forest carbon stocks (the amount of carbon held in carbon “pools,” such as forest biomass and soil) and gives decision makers a coherent picture of what it means for the environment.
Critical carbon balance
“Our work increases our understanding of how Canadian forests contribute to the global carbon cycle,” says Werner. “We work with scientists from across Canada, including all the provinces and territories.”
“My main function as a senior scientist is to lead and coordinate the research program of the CFS Carbon Accounting Team, to support science-based policy development in the Government of Canada, and to represent CFS science and interests nationally and internationally.”
As major exchangers of carbon dioxide (CO2), Canada’s forests play a role in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In recent years, countries around the world have created multilateral agreements to reduce CO2 emissions. But targets aren’t enough; we need quantitative data to assess whether Canada is meeting its international obligations.
So the Carbon Accounting Team looks at a variety of information, including the size and growth of forests, insect populations and forest fires, for example. Putting it together, they can determine which forest stands (parts of a forest with similar trees of roughly the same age) are either sources of carbon or “carbon sinks.”
The carbon balance in Canada’s forests, which account for nearly 10 percent of the forested land in the world, has an impact on the world’s climate. So the team then shares its findings with the international community.
Ahead of the curve
Werner says Canada was one of the first countries in the world to internalize the importance of this kind of environmental accountability.
“Canada is one of the leading countries in the world to do this. Canada started this work in 1989, long before the 1992 United Nations agreement in Rio de Janeiro (at the well-known ‘Earth Summit’). We were basically several years ahead of the curve.”
Today, Canada is at the forefront of efforts to understand the role of forests in the global carbon cycle. But how did we get in the lead?
“I think we are in this position for a number of reasons,” says Werner. “Having started early, having good facts, and having excellent coordination between multiple federal agencies and provincial resource agencies.”
Canada’s expertise is now being sought by other countries, he adds. “We’re currently working with both Russia and Mexico to assist their governments in developing similar infrastructures.”
Werner joined the CFS to apply his knowledge and expertise to an important cause—tackling a worldwide environmental problem. But after almost a decade working there, he says he is still being educated himself.
“My educational background includes an undergraduate degree in wood science from the University of Hamburg in Germany and a doctorate in forest ecology from the University of British Columbia. But as a scientist, learning and training are daily activities.”
“My continuing motivation for this work stems from understanding that global climate change poses the single largest threat to humanity and sustainability of life on earth,” says Werner.
He and his team have certainly not kept their discoveries to themselves. Werner is constantly on the move, presenting their findings here and around the world. “I am spending a lot of time on the road: travelling to and from meetings, co-authoring reports, giving presentations and representing Canadian interests in international forums.”
Werner sees the success of the Carbon Accounting Team as a blueprint for similar environmental initiatives. For example, he says, “It’s certainly conceivable that under a climate change scenario in the future, we might be accountable for our water-use footprints.”