Helping Canada's forest sector and society adapt to climate change
How exactly is the climate forecast to change, and what could that mean for Canada’s forests and forest management?
Canada is working to answer these questions in order to help the forest sector and society in general adapt to changing climate conditions. Today, forest managers must consider a range of possible future climates—those involving, for example, altered growing seasons, more insect infestations, more wildland fires and greater permafrost melting.
An important first step is to identify social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities to changing forest conditions. The next important step is to plan ways to reduce the impact of those vulnerabilities.
For example, projected increases in drought, fire, windstorms, and insect and disease outbreaks are expected to result in greater tree mortality. Fewer trees will reduce Canada’s timber supply, which in turn will affect the economic competitiveness of Canada’s forest industry. This would leave forestry-dependent communities vulnerable to job losses, closure of forestry processing facilities and an overall economic slump.
New thinking to deal with new conditions
Forest managers have traditionally assumed that the climate conditions of previous decades would be the conditions of future decades. Now, with more knowledge about climate and its patterns of change, forest managers are shifting their thinking.
Adaptation will mean taking action to minimize the negative effects of change. Yet at the same time some changes (such as longer growing seasons or moister weather patterns) may in fact offer new opportunities for the forest sector. Adaptation will therefore also be mean taking advantage of the positive impacts brought about by climate change.
The challenge of uncertainty
Many uncertainties exist about how, and to what extent, climate change will affect Canada’s forests. This makes planning adaptation efforts a challenging exercise.
Dealing effectively with uncertainty requires having:
- the use of new tools and techniques for decision-making, such as scenario-planning exercises
- a good knowledge of the forest
- an understanding of risks
- the flexibility to adjust to changes
Risk management is a proven technique for identifying potential problems and then developing ways to: (1) reduce or avoid them; and (2) where they are unavoidable, respond to them to reduce negative outcomes.
In forestry, this means setting management objectives that recognize that the forests of the future will be different from those of today. By identifying the risks associated with these new conditions, forest planners and managers can then focus on finding ways to reduce or optimize the impact of those risks.
Support for adaptation from all parties
The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM) has identified climate change adaptation as a priority for the forest sector. Many parties are working to support this priority:
- Forest scientists and forest practitioners across the country are assessing adaptation needs and adaptation options.
- The federal, provincial and territorial governments are collaborating in creating a range of products to help forest managers begin taking adaptation action.
- Provincial and territorial governments are developing approaches to addressing climate change, supporting climate research and raising awareness of the need for adaptation.
- Forest companies are beginning to address issues related to climate change in their management plans.
Practical tools aid adaptation strategies
Tools to analyze forest vulnerabilities
Forest scientists are developing a range of tools for assessing and managing climate-related risks and adaptation options. For example:
- Canadian Forest Service (CFS) researchers have developed a new software tool, BioSIM, which can predict stages in insect development during the growing season. BioSim has been used to predict how climate change might affect the risk of mountain pine beetle infestations in western Canada.
- CFS scientists have updated Canada’s plant hardiness zones using recent climate data. The new map produced shows changes in the hardiness zones consistent with climate change.
- In partnership with provinces, the CFS is developing frameworks, guidebooks and tools to help forest management practitioners: better understand their readiness to adapt; and identify sources of vulnerability to sustainable forest management.
Tools to help forests and the forest sector adapt
Work is underway on several fronts to find ways to help forest stands adapt to new climatic conditions and disturbance regimes. For example:
- Researchers are looking at ways to reduce forests’ vulnerability to fire and insect damage.
- Industry is exploring new markets for beetle-killed wood.
- Some forest companies have started using high-flotation tires to navigate wet areas, allowing them to extend their operating season.
Tools to inform forest management decision-making
Scientists are incorporating the data they have on changes in climate conditions into research and planning tools. This gives forest managers better information with which to make decisions. For example:
- Seedwhere is a geographic information system (GIS) tool that can guide planting and seeding decisions for forest regeneration. It can also help forest managers decide where to collect seeds and how far those seeds can be moved.
Looking to the long term
Forest managers need to include climate change considerations in long-term planning if Canada is to maintain a competitive position in world markets. This means enhancing our ability to assess climate effects and identifying ways to adapt forests to ensure a healthy ecosystem and sustained supply of fibre.
Involving everyone in adaptation efforts—government, industry, academia, the public—will be the most effective approach. Good communication and information exchange will help Canadians address shared problems and pool resources to solve them.