Thirty per cent of the world’s boreal forest area is in the Canadian boreal forest, second only in size to the boreal forest in Russia. Canada’s massive expanse of boreal forest – three million square kilometers – is undergoing a serious transformation due to climate change. I’m fortunate to be part of a large group (16 authors!) of Canadian forest scientists who are investigating how climate change will impact the Canadian boreal forest. We recently published a comprehensive review of our findings, but I’ll give you the condensed version.

leaning trees in this Alaskan forest tilting

Drunken forests resulting from melted permafrost. Image courtesy of Tingjun Zhang, supplied by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder

Rising Temperatures in the Boreal Region

Since the 1850s, the mean annual temperature in the boreal region of Canada has risen by 0.5 C to 3.0 C, with increases greater than 2.0 C west of the Manitoba-Ontario border. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published its fifth assessment report, and it concluded that increases of 2 C in mean annual temperature by 2050 are highly probable, and mean annual temperatures across the Canadian boreal zone could be 4–5 C warmer by 2100.

Forest Producing Greenhouse Gases

All aspects of boreal forest ecosystem function are likely to be affected by these temperature increases. Approximately 40 per cent of the Canadian boreal forest is underlain by permafrost, some of which is already degrading irreversibly. This will result in a repeated process of forest decline and re-establishment lasting several decades. Significant quantities of greenhouse gases (especially CO2 and methane) will be released in this process, amplifying the future global warming trend.

Droughts and WildfiresWildfire in a boreal forest stand

Warmer temperatures, coupled with changes in the distribution and timing of annual precipitation, are likely to cause serious tree-killing droughts in the west. East of the Great Lakes, however, warming coupled with increasing atmospheric CO2 may stimulate increased tree growth. Large wildfires, which can cause serious economic losses, are expected to become more frequent, but increases in mean annual area burned will be relatively gradual. Wildfires release large amounts of CO2, which may also amplify future temperature increases.

Forest Insect Outbreaks

Mountain pine beetle perched on a wood stumpThe most immediate threats could come from forest insect pests. Relatively small temperature increases can lead to population outbreaks. This has already happened in British Columbia with the Mountain Pine Beetle. The beetle is likely to spread east through the rest of the Canadian boreal forest over the next few decades.

What the Future Holds

Quantifying the multiple effects of climate change is challenging, particularly because there are great uncertainties attached to possible interactions among them, as well as with other land-use pressures, such as urban expansion and the impacts of resource development.

Considerable ingenuity is needed from forest managers and scientists to address the formidable challenges posed by climate change to boreal ecosystems. Government and industry forest managers and forest scientists will need to work together to develop effective strategies to adapt sustainable forest management practices to the impending changes.

SRC is among the national leaders in working with the forest sector in developing climate change adaptation options for forestry companies and forest-based communities.

About the Author: Dr. Mark Johnston is currently a Distinguished Scientist in SRC’s Environment Division. He has worked at SRC since 2001 in the areas of forest ecology and climate change. Most recently, he helped lead a national study on the vulnerability of Canada’s forest sector to the impacts of climate change. He continues to work with the forest industry and government to assist them in understanding climate change impacts and how they can adapt to these changes.

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  • CalgaryDon

    That is a nice overview of expected events from a theoretical phenomena. Many others believe we are entering a cooling era correlating to observed Sun Activity. I’d rather the earth be warmed then cooled, it we had a choice of course. But we don’t given we can’t tweak the Sun. ‘Climate Change’ is an opinion, not a proven fact.

    • JeanLuc

      You are absolutely wrong. Please do some basic research before making willfully ignorant comments.

      The “Many others” you describe are almost entirely unqualified to study the climate. Politicians, TV news casters, and people who have their own website are not automatically granted a nuanced understanding of how the climate works. That requires many years, decades even, of study. Of course, there are many people who have done just that, they actually know what they are talking about. You should listen to them. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that the globe is warming and it is caused by human activities.

      Also the idea that there is currently climate cooling being caused by solar activity is absolute bollocks. Like… just totally incorrect. Laughably incorrect.

      Global warming is not an opinion. You cannot have an opinion on scientific facts. You cannot have an opinion on global warming. You either understand it or you don’t. You clearly don’t.

      But hey, you live in Calgary… so at least you will reap the benefits in the long run. It’s going to get a whole lot sunnier and warmer there. Sure sucks though for the billions who live at lower latitudes or low elevations.

      Of course, reading this will not change your mind on anything. You refuse to learn about it because you don’t want it to be true. Just like the people who thought the Sun goes around the Earth, or who still think evolution is not real (hint: it is). You would much rather stick your head in the sand and pretend there is no problem. Perhaps that will make it go away.

      I don’t think you are an idiot, but you certainly are ignorant about the facts. Will you do somthing about? Will you educate yourself?

      Probably not.

    • SRC Communications

      JeanLuc, CalgaryDon – Thanks for the comments and interest in our post. It’s important just to have conversations about the environment. The more we can educate, the better prepared we can be.

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  • David Cantando

    Wouldn’t Canada and Russia both see an increase in the total amount of acreage available for the growing of crops and livestock if warming continues? Could this not help feed people? The southern hemisphere, on the other hand, does not appear to have as much land mass. Won’t people be able to migrate over time to this newly habitable land from areas that are lost to rising sea levels?

    • SRC Communications

      This is a common question, given that temperatures are expected to warm in northerly latitudes. However, there is more to growing crops than temperature. The biggest barrier to expanded crop production in the north is the lack of suitable soil. North of LaRonge is the
      Canadian Shield, which develops very thin and unproductive soils and would be very poor for agriculture. In areas where soils are suitable, increasing temperatures may provide some opportunities, but this will depend heavily on local soil conditions. In addition, in much of the north, road infrastructure is lacking, so expanding agriculture in a meaningful way would be prohibitively expensive.

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