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March 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

SPOTLIGHT

Getting ready for climate change

Climate change could have an effect on Canada’s forests, and a variety of research initiatives are underway to try and measure what effect, and what type of forests woodlot operators could plant in anticipation of that change.

By Suzanne Atkinson

Extreme weather, be it wind, precipitation or temperature, may become the norm as climate change becomes a reality around the world. And Canada’s woodlot operators will need to be prepared to weather that reality, experts agree. A variety of initiatives are underway to not only measure current climate change and the effect it has on woodlots, but to encourage woodlot owners to plant in anticipation of that change. An environmental climatologist recently told a woodlot conference in Ontario that every facet of the forest will be impacted as climate and weather extremes open the door for disease and bugs to jump into environments where they’ve never before been a problem.

Windstorms, like this severe January storm in Sweden that left 75 million cubic metres of windthrow in its wake, could become more common in the future because of climate change.

Robert Stewart, a climate change science advisor, says one option is to plant varieties now which will reach a harvestable maturity at 25 years rather than 75 years. But while strategies are being considered to determine which varieties will flourish down the road, it’s possibly too soon to get those stems in the ground says a research scientist. Steve Colombo says that climate change may not have progressed far enough yet to allow species that will thrive in 50 years time in a given area to take hold and do well under current conditions. Colombo works for the Ministry of Natural Resources out of its Ontario Forest Research Institute. Stewart says forests occupy about 65 per cent of Ontario and the harvest of forest products contributes about $15.8 billion in provincial revenues. One in 16 jobs is connected to a forest-related industry.

Tourism and recreation add an inestimable benefit as well. It all adds up to a huge economic impact if the forest environment is not prepared for climate change. “The cold has been our big saviour,” Stewart says, explaining that as the climate warms, disease and parasites will be able to "get in here and continue to expand.” "It could overwhelm our forest’s capacity to deal with it," he says. He fingered the Asian long horned beetle as a threat that "could take a lot of the market." He urged woodlot managers that if they discover a problem, to deal with it early. "Forest management is all about adaptation," he says.

Woodlot managers have a variety of tools they can use to deal with global warming, such as more frequent scheduling of harvests and an improvement in forest management practices. The consensus is that climate change will be accompanied by fluctuations in precipitation rates and other global weather patterns.

Stewart was the climate change research co-ordinator on assignment from the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada. His research suggests tree mortality could increase by 40 per cent. Stewart says that climate has and continues to change slowly—pointing out that what once might be a catastrophic event which occurs once every 100 years, will gradually occur more frequently. "Change is slow and consistent. It’s real and something that needs to be considered in terms of management." The change in the forest environment will be felt in both growth and disturbance rates, he says, explaining that severe weather events will result in more blowdowns and other extreme weather problems. Colombo added that climate change will result in sea level fluctuations and periods of drought. "If the environment is changing, it is going to put more stress on the ecosystem," says Stewart.

That will be evidenced by a slow introduction of new plant species into an area—and that introduction will increase competition for species that were once more suitable to existing soil, water and climactic conditions. "There’s an opportunity to move to more southerly species," says Colombo, cautioning that the choice of species depends on its ability to handle different precipitation patterns and soil configurations. But while the strategy has been thought through, implementation hasn’t started yet, he says. "We need to develop a way of knowing when these plants will succeed. You begin to develop test plantings, and over 10 and 20 and 30 years you do more test plantings and you begin to see results when you’re down the road," Colombo says. "That’s not happening." To complicate this, the climate change will occur more rapidly than the forest species can migrate on its own, says Stewart.

Woodlot managers have a variety of tools they can use to deal with global warming such as the implementation of genetic breeding programs, an improvement in forest management practices, and a more frequent scheduling of harvests. Stewart says the consensus is that the climate will change significantly within the next 100 years and will be accompanied by fluctuations in precipitation rates and other global weather patterns. Winter precipitation is more likely to fall with rain, freezing rain or sleet leading to more winter run-off, earlier spring thaws and later freeze-ups. And Colombo says chances are some of the larger growing regions in the United States such as the southeast, with its large stands of southern pine, will become even drier.

He suggests that production levels there may decline. It may affect the wood supply in the US, he says, noting that the southeast region is one of Canada’s major competitors in the American lumber market. Research efforts extend to deciduous forests, as well. Ted Hogg is a biologist researching the dieback of aspens in Western Canada through the Canadian Climactic Impacts and Adaptation Research Network. Some 150 research plots, some in climactically sensitive areas in Western Canada, are being monitored to determine the effect a variety of climate related events have had on aspen. "Growth has collapsed and been regenerated several times over the past 50 years," Hogg says.

He explains that the greatest weather event by far that he’s examined is the current drought. Though results across the board have yet to be compiled, Hogg, who is with the Canadian Forestry Service, says that while dieback has been low, the aspens have suffered severe stem damage by wood boring insects during the drought. And while such climate change can result in a lack of foliage, that lack of foliage itself can contribute to a precipitation shortage. "Over a large scale there can be a feedback," Hogg surmises. "We think there is a connection." He says general circulation models indicate that the aspen leaf out releases more water vapour into the atmosphere. "When the aspen leaf out, they raise humidity and increase the chance of getting rainfall," he says.

But the volume of trees needed to impact weather conditions is tremendous, he adds. Hogg and a team of three others have been studying the aspen since last year. They hope eventually to measure how resilient aspen are to a variety of weather-related stresses. So far the most fascinating finding, he says, is examining tree rings to date when drought and other stresses have occurred. "Aspen put out distinct tree rings when defoliated by insects," he says, explaining that he’s been able to find the years and correlate them with historical data. The rings "tend to be thinner. When you dry and polish it, it looks white," he says, explaining that the wood has a lower density and its strength is reduced. "It’s not just a negative story," he says, explaining that areas in the north may become more suitable for growth.

In addition he says, areas with a higher elevation and more precipitation, may increasingly become better suited to the growth of aspen. The final verdict has yet to be rendered, Hogg notes, on whether climate change will bring about a growth or decline in forest cover. "Warm is good for trees, but dry is bad," he says. But Colombo says while a strategy has been thought through—which will begin a cycle of planting and monitoring species adaptation for climate change—the actual planting of stems has yet to begin. "We’re just about at the right time to begin to implement some of these strategies," he says. "Thirty years ago would have been too soon. We’re just now on the cusp. We should begin in the near future to do some of these plantings.

That would tell us if it would be too soon.” Meanwhile, the federal government’s multi-million dollar Forest 2020 plantation demonstration and assessment initiative will attack the climate change situation from several angles. Steve Dominy is acting director of communications, operations and client relations at Great Lakes Forestry Centre and his primary responsibility is the regional delivery of programs within Ontario, including Model Forests and Forest 2020 demonstration plantations. Dominy says more than 6,000 hectares of lesser quality land across Canada will be planted with approved varieties of trees, which will act as demonstration plots. The plots will serve to encourage private investment in the faster growing species.

And because they will be monitored, the effect of climate change on individual supposedly fast-growing species can be recorded nation-wide. Forest 2020, with some initial financial investment from a landowner, will cut down on the $1,500 to $2,000 per hectare cost of preparing, planting and maintaining young trees for the first year. And expertise will be available through the program to maintain tree health.

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