Climate change – a global issue that affects forests.

Scientists studying climate change estimate that Ontario will warm an average of 3 to 6 degrees C within the next 75 to 100 years, and warn that ecosystems will have difficulty adapting to this fast pace of change. Scientists also predict that global warming will have an impact on wood supply and forest biodiversity in both the short and long term.
The predicted effects of climate change on forests include a decline in forest productivity due to more frequent and extreme storms and wind damage, greater stress due to drought, more frequent and severe forest fires, and insect disturbances. 

It is also predicted that increases in temperature will cause a northward shift in forest types and associated flora and fauna. Other effects are a change in competitiveness in plant species, (as herbaceous plants are favoured by increased C02 compared to woody plants) and a shorter winter harvest season, due to milder winters, resulting in an associated increase in forest harvest operating costs.

There are a number of unknowns related to climate change and the effects on forest ecosystem processes. A doubling of C02 from pre-industrial levels is expected to occur within 80 years. Some scientists believe that in the long term, forests may become more productive as C02 is the main fuel for photosynthesis.    It is also thought that in marginal soils, such as the claybelt of northeastern Ontario, forests may become more productive as the rate of litter decomposition rises with increasing temperatures.

Carbon credits.
The role of forests in managing carbon emissions was recognized in both the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change in 1992 and The Kyoto Protocol in December 1997. Governments can choose from a wide range of policies for climate change mitigation; emissions trading, carbon offset trading, taxation, energy efficiency and fuel mix choices, and innovation and technology promotion.  Specific to forests, countries that ratify the protocol will report on area of managed forests, reforestation, afforestation and deforestation. 
There is a variety of means of reducing negative impacts to forests from anticipated effects of climate change. Management possibilities  include:
  • Plant trees.  Promote afforestation - conversion of non-forested to forested land.
  • Plant climate adapted species. 
  • Increase alternatives to clearcutting. Use shelterwood and selection systems to decrease disturbance to the forest floor, and prevent drier seedling environments.
  • Thin stands to reduce moisture stress. This increases vigour where stands are under moisture stress.
  • Shorten rotation lengths. Harvest stands that are deteriorating due to stress from insects and disease.
  • Limit forest fragmentation to maintain north south floral and faunal migration routes
  • Recognize that young trees sequester carbon, and old trees store carbon. Enhance forest carbon sinks through good stand management.
  • Dedicate forest plantations to renewable biomass fuel production to replace fossil fuels.
  • Enhance tree breeding programs and biological pest control.
  • Increase forest fire suppression.  A longer growing season, warm temperatures and reduced precipitation increases fire activity, contributing greatly to atmospheric carbon.
The cutting of forest, the burning of fossil fuels, and the loss of soil humus all contribute to increasing greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and the chlorofluorocarbons. Successful climate change mitigation will require reductions in greenhouse gasses and increases in carbon sequestration (storage). Forests are important for their role in absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere, and carbon sequestering could become an objective of forest management.

Ecoregions of Canada before climate change

Projected ecoregions of Canada after climate change
Source: Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada 

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