Damaging peatlands could release a "massive" amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and, if left unchecked, negate the Yukon government's plans to reduce territory-wide emissions within the decade, according to a new report by the regional chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
Under current and projected levels of placer mining in the Indian River watershed, the report states nearly 600 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide are at risk of being released into the atmosphere over the next century. That's equivalent to annual emissions from 125,000 cars.
"Keeping the carbon stored in peatlands safely underground could be one of the Yukon's biggest contributions to global efforts to control climate change," it states.
The territorial government is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. Much of its focus lies in replacing fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy, including wind and solar.
Not knowing the full extent of emissions linked to the destruction of peatlands is a "blindspot for the Government of Yukon," the report states.
"The Yukon has no plan to safeguard the carbon that is stored in peatlands. Protecting peatlands and other natural carbon stores needs to be a pillar of the Yukon's climate action plan."
Peatlands, which are made up of partially decayed plants, take thousands of years to form. Representing a swath of different wetlands, including bogs, fens and swamps, they act as natural carbon stores.
"Peatland habitats along the Indian River have formed over the past six thousand years, but can be lost in just a few seasons of mining," the report states, adding that carbon is released when peat decays and dries out, which can happen when miners thaw permafrost or heap it into piles.
Peatlands that have been restored are a far cry from their original form, making damage to them "irreversible," the report states.
Although the Indian River watershed only accounts for 0.3 per cent of the territory's landmass, the report states there are peatlands in the Dawson area and beyond that could be affected by placer mining and other forms of development.
"This report didn't look at the impacts to peatlands from other industrial developments, like roads that can interrupt the way water flows through landscapes, or hard-rock mining that can depress water tables in the surrounding areas," it states.
Malkom Boothroyd, who co-wrote the report, told CBC News that tracking and analyzing emissions from peatland disturbance on a territory-wide scale has never been done before.
He wants that to change.
"Any development that is adding more fuel to the climate crisis we should be very, very careful about," he said.
The Klondike Placer Miners' Association didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Peatlands aren't well mapped
Regions where peatlands are present haven't been extensively mapped yet, the report states.
The opposite is true in the heavily-mined Indian River watershed.
That's why CPAWS focused on it — there are both known peatlands in the area and a litany of mining claims.
To figure out where wetlands could be vulnerable to mining, staff used a GPS tool to map possible future disturbances in the area, based on the distribution of placer claims and historical patterns of mining, and the Recommended Dawson Land Use Plan, which sets various benchmarks on development.
Boothroyd said the land use plan should include better protections for wetlands if carbon is to remain stored inside where it belongs. He calls on land use planners to, among other things, recommend against development in fens and ensure the plan conforms with the Yukon government's emission reduction target.
CPAWS recommends the Yukon government track emissions from peatland disturbance, that new mining development in those areas be halted and that it launch a territory-wide inventory.
John Streicker, minister of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, told CBC News the report addresses a complicated subject, and there remain many uncertainties.
To help with that, he said the territorial government would cover the cost of joint research into the issue.
"I appreciate the recommendations that CPAWS has come up with, but I still think we probably need to tighten up the science a little bit before we're sure how big of a problem it is or not."