Tipping the Scales

Boreal Forest Landscape

Perhaps it is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the boreal forest in Canada; covering approximately 2.7 million square kilometers, half of the country's landmass is dominated by iconic coniferous forests. Defining Canada's northern landscape boreal species are uniquely adapted to harsh and cold climates, thriving through long winters and strong seasonal variations in temperature and precipitation. The boreal forest represents a region of enormous economic and cultural significance for Canada. Forestry revenue from the boreal forest amounts to over $40 billion annually and the forestry industry employs around 130,000 people. Seventy percent of Indigenous communities in Canada live in forested areas, along with some of Canada's most well0known wildlife species, such as wolves, grizzly bears, and caribou. While the biodiversity of the boreal forest is limited due to extreme conditions, the vast size of the boreal region means that the forest carries out the essential functions of air and water purification, and carbon sequestration at globally significant levels.

"While we know that climate influences trees, the trees also influence the climate" - Danielle Way

Canada's seemingly endless landmass makes it a key player in global carbon, water, and climate dynamics. One-third of the world's forests are boreal, from Canada, through Scandanavia and Eurasia. It is the largest forest type on earth and draws down around 95 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually in Canada alone. Such vast numbers prove the boreal forest to be of paramount importance to global ecology and climate stability. As climate trends are changing, however, the effects of warming, on a forest system adapted to the cold are tremendous. The coniferous trees forming the foundation of boreal ecosystems do not respond positively to warming climates, and, as a result, carbon sequestration by the forest may be significantly reduced. In recent decades, we have already seen increased mortality rates of boreal trees as higher temperatures and drought stress tip them into a negative carbon balance.

Danielle Way from the Biology Department at Western University leads a lab group researching the myriad effects of a warming climate on the boreal forest. On a large scale, increasing temperatures reduce the forest's ability to sequester carbon, resulting in a build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide that then causes temperatures to rise further. Her team works at the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre where they can mimic future predicted climate conditions, including warmer temperatures and high atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and examine how boreal trees will fare over the coming century. Way's team is currently collaborating with the Canadian Forestry Service, as well as the US Department of Energy on a multi-million-dollar project to study increasing temperature and CO2 effects on living, mature boreal species. As her group expands, they are also investigating climate effects on significant crops, such as canola, and plant relationship with pollinators.

Results

The Way's lab research adds to the accuracy of predictive climate models at home and across the planet while contributing new knowledge to assist in the development of mitigating strategies to counter increasing tree mortality in the boreal forest.