A five-year project by B.C.’s four leading research universities will draw a roadmap for forest management to help the industry cope with climate change, and even slow its advance
The ability of the province’s 55 million hectares of forest to capture atmospheric carbon has been seriously hampered by the extent of pine forests killed by the mountain pine beetle, an area that now tops 18 million hectares.
The Forest Carbon Management Project, funded by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and led by the University of Victoria, will engage academics, government officials and scientists, First Nations People and industry leaders with the goal of maximizing the potential of forests to capture and store carbon, both in the living forest, soil-based carbon sinks and in long-lasting products of the forest industry such as furniture and buildings.
How the forest is regenerated and with what species of trees, how timber is harvested, and finding ways to use wood for building rather than “carbon intensive” materials such as steel, concrete and plastics all have an impact on the province’s carbon footprint and ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Forests, when they grow, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in foliage, branches, bark and roots, which (when the trees die) become part of the soil and slowly release CO2 back into the atmosphere. Forests are so effective at storing carbon that when they don’t function well, it can create serious imbalance.
The combined effect the pine beetle has on lost carbon storage activity and emissions from decay in the dead pine forests exceeds carbon emissions from all other sources in B.C., about 65 million to 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Through the ’90s, B.C. forests were a net sink for carbon, storing far more than would be emitted by fossil fuel burning. Since the spread of the mountain pine beetle, they have become a net carbon source. That’s because hundreds of millions of trees are no longer able to take up carbon, but are just decomposing.
Climate change scenarios complicate the work of forest management and regeneration, but it also presents opportunities to understand what future forests might look like. Not all climate change is negative. There are tree species in British Columbia that are actually responding favorably to environmental changes — both the increasing temperatures and the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, which is often a limiting factor for tree growth.
The climatic “comfort zone” for some species of trees is shifting north and it is moving far faster than the natural climate changes recorded in the geological record. As long as change is a slow process the response of vegetation is to migrate with the shifting climate zone.
Paleo-ecologists measure the pace of migration in kilometres per century, but climate bands in recent years are moving at least 10 times that fast, outstripping the ability of plants to cope with the change and relying solely on the biological migration mechanisms of trees is not going to be sufficient.