The connection between clearcut logging and Canada’s hottest day on record

With temperatures set to soar to 47 C in B.C., forests provide a cool, wet place for animals and people alike to seek shelter

In a moment of weakness a couple of weeks ago, I agreed to run a 20-kilometre stretch of the Juan de Fuca trail on the southwest of Vancouver Island with a group from my gym. 

“It’ll be fine,” I thought, comforting myself with the thought (a.k.a. delusion) that it would be a fun, elongated walk in the woods.

But as the date rapidly approached, there was just one problem: our “fun walk in the woods” turned out to be smack dab in the middle of British Columbia’s worst heat wave on record. 

Yet the show went on. I left the parking lot at Sombrio Beach carrying nothing but three litres of water, four protein bars, a clean pair of socks and a moderately positive attitude. 

Within 30 minutes, I was coated with mud and drenched with sweat. The temperature in Victoria was on its way to hitting 35.6-degrees that afternoon, making it the third hottest day on record for the city (until the all-time record was smashed the next day). But on the trail, mostly under the shade of the forest, I quickly discovered the temperature was surprisingly manageable. 

I had a solid five hours to ponder the relationship between the forest and the heat as I traversed suspension bridges, fell in mud bogs and sweatily scampered along boardwalks. 

Our end point was Botanical Beach, just outside of the town of Port Renfrew in Pacheedaht First Nation territory, less than a 15-minute drive from the Fairy Creek logging blockades. Every time I emerged into a clearing and felt the sun glaring down, I found myself wondering how much hotter it would be in the middle of a clearcut — and what that would mean for all of the surrounding forests, animals and people. 

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When I returned to internet service (and a normal body temperature), I started digging for research on this topic and came across a report written earlier this year by Peter Wood for Sierra Club BC on the connection between intact forests and climate risks.

“Just as climate change is expected to generate more extreme weather, intensive forest management, namely clearcutting, creates extreme conditions locally and at the landscape level,” Wood, who has a PhD in forestry from the University of Toronto, wrote. 

“Old intact forests act as a moderating influence on the landscape, creating their own microclimate that is cooler and wetter year-round. The shade they provide allows for the development of a rich understory and soil development, which acts as a sponge, absorbing and releasing water slowly throughout the year, mitigating against both drought and flood conditions.”

Thanks to the cooling effect provided by intact forest, these ecosystems also provide a refuge during forest fires. 

“Old growth provides almost like a Noah’s ark, where species will flee to more dense, cooler, wetter, old-growth forest,” Wood told me in an interview. “After a fire, what’s available there to regrow the forest comes from these species that were able to take shelter in these refuges.”

On the flipside, landscapes degraded by industrial logging increase local temperatures and make woody debris more flammable, according to the report. 

In other words: not only do clearcuts result in increased temperatures, but they also provide the perfect fuel for forest fires. “Approximately 50 per cent of the entire biomass that’s in a forest is left behind after a clearcut and that starts to dry out and becomes this readily available fuel,” Wood said. 

As if that weren’t bleak enough, clearcut logging also increases the risk of flooding, landslides and water turbidity. 

B.C.’s 429-page Strategic Climate Risk Assessment identifies 15 climate risks, the majority of which are influenced by logging, according to Wood. The assessment flagged the greatest climate-related risks as severe wildfire, seasonal water shortage and — you got it — heat waves. 

But here’s the catch: nowhere in the assessment does the government examine how industrial logging contributes to those climate risks. “They actually did look at how climate change would impact the profitability of the logging sector and they have quite detailed consideration of how that might prevent harvesting operations and how flooding might hurt their mills,” Wood noted.

So here we are, on what is shaping up to be the hottest day ever recorded in Canada (the day after Lytton, B.C., smashed the Canadian heat record with a temperature of 46.6 Celsius), in a heat wave indicative of the patterns predicted by climate scientists for decades, and the B.C. government is still viewing forests primarily as a source for timber — not as stores of carbon, refuges for wildlife, flood prevention infrastructure or natural air conditioners.  

Calls for the B.C. government to undergo a paradigm shift in terms of how it views its forests are growing. 

“We’ve got to think about changing our priorities,” Wood said. “What kind of forest do we want that is best able to withstand the pressures of climate change and is going to keep our communities safe from fire, from flooding?”

“There’s no way we can be simultaneously logging our old-growth forests and talking about the best possible options in terms of management. If we wait too long, we’re just not going to have the options left to us.” 

The current heat wave makes it viscerally clear that climate change is not a distant future problem. 

Wood says he hopes the heat wave helps people realize that climate change and forest protection are not solely the concern of environmentalists.

“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to not want to burn in a climate-fuelled fire,” he said. “It strikes to the core of our very existence.” 

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