What will the boreal forest look like in 100 years? This is the question that biologists in London, Ontario, are trying to answer in a multi-year international study.
The boreal forest is on the front lines of the fight against climate change, but global warming could compromise its effectiveness.
Black spruce, which is one of the most common species in Canada’s boreal forest, would shrink under the heat of future climatic conditions, says Danielle Way, a biologist at Western University.
When the temperature warms up, the species become smaller , she says.
His work is part of the SPRUCE initiative, a massive Minnesota-based environmental project at Oakridge National Laboratory.
This project is described as a time machine for the climate. Using glass domes, scientists are imitating the ecosystems of the boreal forest in different scenarios of global warming.
We can see all the facets of climate change: a nine-degree climate and a world with more CO² , says Way.
The research results are worrisome because the boreal forest filters a huge amount of CO² into the air.
Carbon dioxide comes from the wood of living trees and dead trees, which produce more CO² when the temperature is warmed up.
Decay does not disintegrate very quickly when the weather is colder, so much carbon remains trapped inside the forest.
Danielle Way, Professor at Western University in Ontario
To date, almost 11% of the planet’s carbon is retained in the forest, that’s about 208 billion tonnes. As the boreal forest warms, more carbon could be released into the atmosphere.
A changing forest
According to Way, the success of the SPRUCE project is crucial, as the boreal forest is essential to achieving the Canadian environmental goals of the Paris Agreement.
If the predictions of the project are true, we could instead be locked into a dangerous process called a positive feedback loop of climate change.
This process generates an automatic acceleration of the warming.
It’s almost like a crazy train , says Way.
However, other aspects of the forest could temporarily help the ecosystem remain balanced.
Unlike black spruce, larch appears to be unaffected by the rise in ambient temperature and the higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.
[Larch trees] are able to adapt and adjust their oxygen production in order to absorb the CO² present in the atmosphere , explains the biologist; They use the carbon found in CO² to build their fabrics, which is why they can maintain constant growth.
Species such as poplars also survive better under warmer conditions, and could replace many conifers in the boreal forest.
I think we are going to witness a transition from the [boreal forest] to a forest mixed with hardwoods.
Danielle Way, Professor at Western University
The SPRUCE project will track the evolution of the boreal forest and its trees for 20 years.