How a windswept forest ecosystem called krummholz could help protect P.E.I.'s shoreline

·3 min read
Daniel McRae walks through the krummholz near the East Point lighthouse.   (Shane Hennessey/CBC  - image credit)
Daniel McRae walks through the krummholz near the East Point lighthouse. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

A P.E.I. researcher is studying the unique forest ecosystem along the Island's shorelines known as krummholz.

Daniel McRae is trying to learn more about the impact of wind and erosion, and how the stunted, twisted vegetation called krummholz can help buffer the Island from increasing storms due to climate change.

"They're fascinating zones. They're a collection of different habitats. They happen in any windy coastal spot across P.E.I., so you have them up in North Cape, right to East Point,"  said McRae, who is with the non-profit Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project

"They're full of food. Tons of migratory birds, shorebirds. They're a unique part of our Island ecology that just hasn't been studied."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"There are a lot of really rare interesting plants that you don't find in any other settings. So it has just gotten more and more interesting as we've gone along."

McRae said the word krummholz comes from Germany, where similar conditions appear in mountainous areas.

"My rough understanding is it means bent or crooked knee, and it's describing that shape of the trees which just bend horizontally," McRae said.

"In Newfoundland, they have similar conditions, but they're a more stone-based island, obviously. And so they call them tuckamore there."

Natural erosion buffer

McRae said the krummholz at East Point also points to another of the benefits of the ecosystem.

"They also are a natural erosion buffer. So rather than building a fence that takes a lot of work and then gets eroded away, these are roots setting into the ground," McRae said.

"Some of these trees here are probably over 100 years old, even though they're not that big."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"They've been securing the shore, which is eroding quickly. But there's areas of the Island where it's all farmed and there's no krummholzing trees left there. Those are some of the fastest-eroding places on P.E.I."

McRae said Macphail Woods wants to see what selection of native plants grow on the windswept shorelines, and how they can start restoring some of these sites.

"These are really strong coastal habitats that resist these storms that are increasing with climate change," McRae said.

"Instead of putting shoreline rocks up, could we start re-establishing krummholz sites across these windy areas that would provide habitat benefits, pollination, water retention, cleaning our air? A whole bunch of things as well as erosion."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Old forest

Kate MacQuarrie, P.E.I.'s director of Forests, Fish and Wildlife, is also a fan of krummholz.

"My favourite thing about krummholz is it's an example of original forest cover," MacQuarrie said.

"Really it's a habitat that you might expect to see further north or at higher elevation. P.E.I. is not far north by many standards, nor are we high elevation. So it's fun to see that."

Submitted by Daniel McRae
Submitted by Daniel McRae

"Anywhere where you get that really brutal onshore winds in the winter and salt spray, where there's white spruce, you'll probably find krummholz," she said.

MacQuarrie said the krummholz research is important because of the prediction of more storm events because of climate change.

"Krummholz has a really important role to play in protecting our shorelines," MacQuarrie said. "Think of Dorian not that long ago, some of the damage that it did to some man-made coastal forests. But the krummholz forest withstood it very well."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"I'm optimistic that it's going to perform really well and if it does, it may be possible to restore some of the krummholz that we've lost."

MacQuarrie said she appreciates the work Macphail Woods is doing to study krummholz.

"I think if you describe it, most Islanders will know what it is. I don't think people appreciate how truly important it is. And beautiful."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

McRae's research is being funded through a program co-led by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the P.E.I. government.

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