NASA says Canada in 'hot spot' of ecological change

A new NASA study predicts massive ecological changes for Canada's Prairies and boreal regions by the year 2100.

Prairie grasslands and boreal regions to shift north by 2100

A new NASA study predicts massive ecological changes for Canada's Prairies and boreal regions by the year 2100.

Those areas are in "hot spots" highly vulnerable to massive environmental changes this century due to global warming, the study states.

A NASA map shows ecological sensitivity for the next century, with purple representing regions only slightly vulnerable to change. The ecological stress increases through blue, green, yellow, and orange areas to red. (NASA)

Much of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba is predicted to see major shifts northward of plant and animal species.

"By about 2100, the climate change projections that we have today would suggest that there would be pressure on that grassland so prevalent in [the Canadian Prairies] to move further northward — and at the expense of the forest moving further northward as well," said NASA climate scientist Duane Walliser, who spoke with CBC News from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Walliser said that all across the globe, whole ecological zones such as deserts and tundra will be on the move because of "unprecedented" warming at a pace faster than at any time in 10,000 years.

But Western Canada will be among the areas hardest hit.

A map of the globe on the NASA study shows much the Prairies in bright red "hot spots" of ecological stress, where 100 per cent of the landscape is predicted to see major changes in plant species.

Researchers said the areas are vulnerable because they have wide transition zones where grasslands meet boreal regions.

"So anywhere in Canada where you are currently at what's called an 'ecotone,' or the transition zone between the prairie plant communities and the boreal forest plant communities, that's where the greatest change will be observed," said NASA collaborator, Jon Bergengren, a global ecologist and earth systems scientist.

The Saskatchewan Research Council is reaching similar conclusions.

One of its scientists, Jeff Thorpe, published a report last May suggesting the Prairies will see fewer trees, a loss in wetlands, and an invasion of species dependent on open grassland.

"Some of the grasslands species that we don't have yet, they're down in the United States, we expect them to shift northward into Canada," said Thorpe from Saskatoon Wednesday.

Some wildlife will not survive

The NASA study says 37 per cent of Earth's land surface will transform from one major ecosystem zone, or biome, into another, while 49 per cent of land surfaces will see at least some changes in plant species.

Bergengren said some wildlife will not survive these transformations.

"Obviously, it is much easier for plants and animals to migrate or adapt to this level of climatic change over 10,000 years than it is over 100 years," he said.

The NASA model used a global temperature increase of two to four degrees this century, as predicted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.