The catastrophic wildfires experienced in Western Canada and the United States over the past few years are one of the most visible aspects of climate change’s effect on forests, but there are other indicators that aren’t as publicized, according to Bill Beese, a Vancouver Island University (VIU) Forestry Professor and Forest Ecologist.

“The fires are a very visible manifestation of climate change in some areas, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Beese.

Beese says foresters and researchers are observing three main impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems: changes to natural disturbances, changes to natural processes and changes to species.

Natural disturbances – Natural disturbances are events that can “push the reset button on a forest and cause it to start over,” says Beese. Examples are forest fires, insects, disease, and storm damage from wind and landslides. Climate change can alter the frequency and intensity of these disturbances.

Natural processes – Natural processes change when forest decomposition and tree growth rates alter. These are influenced by temperature and the length of growing seasons. The places that get drier might have lower productivity and the places that get warmer and have enough moisture will have higher productivity.

Species – Shifts in habitat can affect species – both plants and animals. Many migrating species, like birds, arrive at a certain time based on seasonal cues, but they may arrive too late for the flowering or seeding of some plants. If these get out of sync it can affect species survival.

Students in VIU’s Forestry Program are learning management tools that can help mitigate impacts or help forests adapt. One of those tools is planting a mixture of tree species to spread the risk out in case some don’t survive.

“There are a lot of technical challenges because growth rates of trees are different. Some mixtures won’t work very well. You could have one tree species take over and leave the others in shade, but if you plant them using a patch approach that can work,” says Beese.

Featured image: Bill Beese, Forestry Professor and Forest Ecologist.
Photo Credit: Vancouver Island University

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