Climate change is causing an increase in global temperatures but that is not where the impacts of climate change end. This is because climate change can set off a chain of events, where one impact leads to another impact. For example, higher temperatures can increase in wildfire activity and permafrost thaw. As an ecologist, who measures changes in the relationships between living things and their environment, this makes understanding the impacts of climate change on a specific location, or ecosystem very challenging.
The Arctic is warming three to four times faster than the global average. Northern ecosystems are experiencing some of the greatest increases in temperatures. The boreal forest is the dominant ecosystem across northern Canada and beneath 80% of the boreal forest is perennially frozen soil called permafrost. That permafrost, which has supported the boreal forest for thousands of years is beginning to thaw. My research investigates how permafrost thaw is impacting the boreal forest and if boreal trees are able to access and use nutrients released from permafrost thaw.
The soil layer above the permafrost is known as the active layer or the portion of soil that thaws every summer providing space for plant roots to access nutrients. As permafrost thaws nutrients that were once frozen and inaccessible to plants are released and available for plants to access. With higher temperatures, the active layer becomes thicker and the depth of permafrost increases. This means that plants have to extend their roots deeper and deeper to access nutrients released from permafrost thaw. This could positively affect plants if they can access these nutrients. Previous research has shown that certain plant species are able to, but we do not know if boreal trees such as black spruce are able to access these novel nutrients.
Permafrost thaw is not the only impact of climate change on Canada’s boreal. Wildfire is a natural disturbance in the boreal and the boreal is well accustomed to fire. However, climate change has increased the severity and frequency of wildfires. Wildfire increases the rate of permafrost thaw. Therefore, my research also investigates how boreal trees can regenerate and regrow after a fire in permafrost environments and if boreal trees re-growing after a fire can access nutrients released from permafrost thaw. This research will help scientists understand how the boreal forest responds to increased wildfire events and permafrost thaw.
The boreal is a crucial biome. Many communities call the boreal home and rely on the boreal for fishing, hunting, leisure, spiritual, and economic opportunities. In Canada, the boreal forest is a major source of employment and revenue for the forest industry. Ecologically, the boreal harbors biodiversity and crucial wildlife habitat for species such as bison and boreal caribou. Climate change is altering the boreal in the north and by understanding permafrost thaw and wildfire communities can predict future responses of the boreal forest to ongoing climate change.
Working in the north requires collaboration and I am fortunate to work with many great organizations including the Forest Ecology Research Group here at Laurier, Northern Water Futures. This research is also supported by the Government of the Northwest Territories as part of the Laurier-Government of the Northwest Territories Partnership.
Learn more in the below video describing my work and the Northern Water Futures project studying the impacts of wildfire and permafrost thaw on the boreal in the Northwest Territories.
Caitlyn is a northern ecologist and environmentalist passionate about sustainability and science communication who is pursuing a PhD in Biological and Chemical Sciences at Wilfrid Laurier University. To inform her research, Caitlyn spends her summers in the Northwest Territories exploring how trees in the boreal forest respond to climate change disturbances such as permafrost thaw and wildfire. She is a recipient of a Canada Graduate Doctoral Scholarship from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. She holds a Bachelor of Sciences in environmental sciences from the University of Guelph and a Masters of Science in biology from the University of Western Ontario.