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NB Media Co-op: Researcher finds New Brunswick’s tree species will shift with climate change

by Cortney MacDonnell

The stakes are high for the future of New Brunswick forests as we enter an increasingly warming climate. Recent research shows that the kinds of trees found in the province will shift with climate change by the end of the century.

Research by Anthony Taylor, a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Fredericton, and colleagues published in the journal, Forest Ecology and Management in April, suggests that a rise in temperature will likely impact tree species composition in New Brunswick.

From the year 2050 to the end of the century, Taylor’s modelling shows that trees, such as balsam fir, that are adapted to colder temperatures will be less abundant and outcompeted by trees that thrive in warmer climates, such as birch, maple and poplar.

The research produced by Taylor and colleagues corroborates “previous simulation studies that predict rapid 21st century climate warming will lead to ‘deborealization’ of Canada’s Acadian Forest Region.”

Forester and wildlife biologist Josh Noseworthy, founder of Global Conservation Solutions, explains: “New Brunswick’s forests are a meeting point between cold-loving species from the north (known as ‘boreal’), and warm-loving species from the south (known as ‘temperate’). The general consensus is that boreal trees and wildlife will not fare well in the face of climate change and will have to move farther and farther north to find the cold environments that they need to survive.”

Taylor cautions that most of what we know about climate change impacting the forest is speculative. He says that robust projections and evidence are important for forest management decisions.

A significant change to New Brunswick’s forest landscape due to climate change is not expected in most of our lifetimes, according to Taylor.

“In the next 30 years, the models don’t suggest any significant change in our forest,” says Taylor.

The degree and severity of global warming with regional consequences for New Brunswick depends on what actions are taken globally to limit the burning of fossil fuels and landscape changes, such as forest loss. New Brunswick’s annual temperature is expected to rise between 3 to 3.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

Climate change is expected to impact the forest in other ways. As global temperatures rise, forest fires, flooding, and extreme weather events are also expected to affect our forest.

For Noseworthy, forest management decisions that consider climate change are very challenging. “Since trees can’t physically move, how long does it take for a temperate forest to replace a boreal one? What sort of impact will this have on our economy and our biodiversity? We simply don’t know the answers to these questions, and this uncertainty makes forest management very difficult,” argues Noseworthy.

Noseworthy says the government of New Brunswick is making great strides in conserving the forest by implementing the goal of doubling the size of protected and conserved areas in the province by the end of 2020.

Roberta Clowater, Executive Director of the New Brunswick Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), also welcomed the enhanced forest conservation measures but says more work needs to be done to protect the forest and wildlife.

“CPAWS encourages the government to go even further with their plans regarding climate change and forests, making sure that the resilience of the forests is paramount in all forest management decisions,” said Clowater in response to the province’s updated forestry strategy released in 2018.

According to CPAWS, “governments have been eroding protection of forest habitats. In 2012, the provincial government reduced the level of conservation forest from 31% of Crown forests to 28%. In 2014, against the advice of wildlife ecologists, that number was reduced even further to 23%.”

CPAWS has argued that the province has lost important areas of old growth forests due to five years of forest cutting and road-building: “Wildlife that need old forests, such as flying squirrels, American marten and pileated woodpeckers, have been put at risk.”

“A modern Forest Strategy needs to have a serious insurance policy of significant areas where nature is permanently protected from industrial development,” added Clowater.

CPAWS also wants the public, including Indigenous peoples, industry, non-governmental organizations, researchers and the tourism sector to be involved in forest management plans.

The Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development and J.D. Irving, New Brunswick’s largest private forestry player, did not respond to a request for a comment on this story.

For Clowater and other forest conservationists, “as the changing climate causes more extreme and unpredictable weather, it is even more important to protect natural areas, so that they can act as natural defenses against the impacts of storms, floods and droughts.”

Cortney MacDonnell is an environmental action reporter with RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment), a research project based at the University of New Brunswick.

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