What will Waterloo Region's forests look like in 80 years?

·5 min read

Waterloo Region — What will Waterloo Region’s forests look like in 80 years? One Waterloo researcher is beginning the work to try and answer that question.

Andrew Trant has spent a lot of time in the arctic or in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia studying how landscapes respond to climate change. Now he is partnering with rare Charitable Research Reserve to study how the forest in Waterloo Region is responding, what it looked like in the past and what it could look like in the future.

Trant, an assistant professor in the school of environment, resources and sustainability at the University of Waterloo, says Waterloo Region is a particularly important area to study landscape shifts as the climate warms, because the region is in the middle of an ecotone — an area where two biological communities meet.

“There’s a different forest type to the south of us,” he says. And, “we’re at that edge, that kind of overlap zone where a different forest type goes to the north.”

The Eastern Deciduous or Carolinian forest extends from Waterloo Region south to the Carolinas in the United States. This forest is the smallest forest zone in Canada, but has some of the highest levels of diversity. Nature Conservancy Canada reports 25 per cent of Canada’s endangered species are found in the Carolinian zone.

Some important Carolinian tree species include the tulip tree with its lovable yellow flowers, the scarce American Chestnut tree which was nearly wiped out by blight by the 1950s, or the scruffy-looking shagbark hickory to name a few.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest extends north from Waterloo Region west to Manitoba and east to Quebec. Some of its common species include sugar maple, white pine, beech and birch trees.

The region is “a really neat spot to see how those more southern species are going to be, and already are, kind of moving north and moving into this region,” says Trant.

“And the other species that were at their southern bit, the maples and oaks and what not — what’s going to happen with them as that competition and composition starts to shift?”

Trant predicts the ecotone will move north as the trees migrate- a process known as range expansion- but how they will move is another question.

Previous research in the eastern United States demonstrates that 20 per cent of tree species showed a northward advancement of their ranges, and that some species respond more readily to climate change.

In Waterloo region, approximately 10 per cent of local forest cover remains, says Trant.

“Looking at a map of this area, or looking at the satellite images, it’s just this mosaic of small woodlots, and lots of agriculture and urban development. So it’s a really difficult place for species to be moving.”

“For trees to move, they’re anchored in the ground so it’s not the individual that’s moving, it’s the next generation. The mature tree produces seed, that seed disperses, and it has to get to an area that is suitable for growth.

“So if it’s on the edge of a farm field, or that seed makes it to the field, it could be cut down or killed.”

He says some of the research will be concerned with determining how trees will be able to migrate in a fragmented landscape and identifying where the disconnected natural landscape could be problematic.

Trant says ultimately the research will be used to help identify future hot spots for conservation — areas that will need help so that forests can move and flourish.

To do this, Trant and his team will be looking at studying three key areas of interest:

1. What the forest systems here were like in the past, including human interaction

2. How the trees have responded to climate change up to this point.

3. How the trees will continue to respond going forward

The team will be studying soil profiles and tree cores to see past growing conditions and growth patterns, or comparing old landscape photos with current imaging. They will study seed production, dispersal and likelihood of survival. They’ll also conduct tree planting experiments to test the extent of different tree species’ ranges.

Besides climate change, they will also study other factors like human interaction with the forests and the number of people projected to be in the area, interactions between the trees and other forest life, and invasive species and their reactions to climate change, says Trant.

The goal of the project is to build an understanding of the next generation of forest in this area looking forward to roughly 2100, a common period of time to study in climate prediction science.

He expects work to begin this summer. Planting the experimental seeds in their one-meter-by-one-meter plots is the first step, as this will be the longest aspect of the project. Once the seeds are in the ground, Trant expects it will take a few years to see any meaningful results about survival rates.

In the meantime, he urges everyone to get outside and pay attention to the effects of climate change already happening around them.

“Climate change is not something that exists solely in the future, it exists today,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to see from day to day, because those changes are gradual, but we are experiencing that change now, and the landscape is experiencing that change now.

“We need to have more people out paying attention. I think once we start to do that then we’re in a good position to make change and to be more supportive of putting more area under protection or finding different ways of conserving if we have a stronger relationship with these natural areas.”

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record