Why Climate Change Could Benefit Parts of Canada’s Boreal Forest

It could be a refuge for plants and animals as temperatures warm.

Jun 16 2016, 6:00pm

Black spruce forest in northeastern Canada. Image: Guillaume Ajavon

The boreal forest in Quebec, which is full of black spruce trees, is absolutely huge—it's "about the size of Spain," Loïc D'Orangeville, a postdoctoral researcher at the Université du Québec à Montréal, told me. While the rest of the world grapples with the damaging effects of climate change—wildfires, drought, the list goes on—northeastern parts of the boreal forest could actually stand to benefit, according to his latest research.

In fact, he argues that Quebec's massive boreal forest could provide a much-needed "refuge" for plants and animals, as much of the continent gets hotter and drier, creating a latitudinal shift that drives the ranges of various species farther north.

D'Orangeville's findings are somewhat surprising, especially given the fierce wildfires we've seen this year in western Canada, most notably around Fort McMurray (and, yes, extreme wildfires are linked to climate change). But, while the boreal forest in western North America is expected to be under an increasing amount of strain—hot, dry weather creates conditions ripe for forest fires—the picture in the east is a bit different.

For one thing, warmer temperatures will bring a longer growing season to parts of the north, where it's relatively limited. And Quebec already receives from more than twice the mean annual precipitation compared to central and western regions: that extra moisture will create a much-needed buffer from increased evaporation, D'Orangeville said.

Tree ring data collection. Image: Guillaume Ajavon

Even so, until now, direct evidence that eastern parts of Canada could fare better as temperatures warm has been fairly hard to come by. That's because most of the research has been done using satellite data. In this new study, published Thursday in Science, D'Orangeville and his colleagues gathered and analyzed tree-ring data from a whopping 16,450 trees, across 583,000 km² of dense Quebec forest.

Black spruce is commercially important in Quebec, he said (D'Orangeville is also associated with Indiana University), so it's closely monitored across the province. "That's why we could access a data set [of this size]," he told me. "You don't normally get to play with a data set this big. It really is amazing."

In the analysis, they found that the trees in northern areas—between latitudes of 49 and 52˚N—will thrive: up to 80 percent of the forest there will see favourable growth between 2040 and 2070. (Above the 52nd parallel, temperatures are quite cold and trees get sparser, so the same effects won't be seen.)

Tree ring data analysis. Image: Ministère des Forēts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec

"It tells us there's still going to be a good part of the black spruce range that's favourable habitat for [certain] species in coming decades," he said. "But that's only one side of the story."

The truth is that even Quebec's mighty forest won't be protected from the onslaught of climate change—not really. Wildfires will move farther north, D'Orangeville said. And insect plagues will continue to spread. (Quebec is in the grips of a long-running budworm epidemic, he noted. These bugs feed on various tree species, including black spruce.)

It will be important to identify regions around the world that could become buttresses against climate change, D'Orangeville said—and Quebec's forest could be one of them.

But the truth is that no part of the world is really safe from climate change. It impacts us all.