New Brunswick

New Brunswick forests could have a whole new look by the end of the century

New Brunswick forests could see fewer balsam firs, the province's most common tree, as temperatures rise, according to a local scientist.

Warming weather could lead to drop in population for province’s most common tree

Mature balsam fir trees like this could be less plentiful if humans don't try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming. (Submitted by Anthony Taylor)

New Brunswick forests could see fewer balsam firs, the province's most common tree, as temperatures warm, say researchers.

Anthony Taylor, a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Fredericton, published a paper in January examining the factors that control forest regeneration following commercial harvesting in the Acadian forest.

Warming in the next few decades could reduce balsam fir regeneration and promote the regeneration of hardwood species such as birch and maple, Taylor's research found.

"We didn't expect within an area the size of New Brunswick that climate would have such an influence over what grew back after we harvested the forest," Taylor said. 

Taylor has been conducting studies on the effects of climate change on forests for the last 10 years. This study is the first field-based study, as opposed to solely computer-based study, that shows climate change could lead to a decrease in the Maritime populations of softwood trees such as balsam firs.

Taylor and the two other scientists working on the project with him intended their research to focus on why forests regenerate the way they do. Soon the team discovered a link between regeneration and climate change, however.

Anthony Taylor stands next to a pile of fir logs. (Submitted by Anthony Taylor)

Balsam firs make up 20 per cent of the forests in New Brunswick and 16.5 per cent of the forests in the Maritimes. 

The researchers sampled 20,000 forest stands across New Brunswick, all harvested between 20 and 30 years ago, the ideal period for a tree to regenerate and re-establish itself.  

The researchers created an algorithm and used it to understand how various factors such as climate, forest composition, soil type and topography influence what grows back after a forest is harvested. 

"What the forest was before it was cut was a very important factor, but overwhelmingly climate was an important factor in determining what grew back after we harvested."

In the colder, wetter areas of the province, balsam fir was more likely to grow back after harvesting. In drier and warmer areas, it was less likely to grow back.

By the end of the century, New Brunswick is expected to warm by 2 C to 6 C.

The warming temperatures mean cold-adaptive species like the balsam fir will be out-competed by some of the warmer adaptive species, Taylor said. 

"It's not that this study is saying the balsam fir is going to disappear from New Brunswick by the end of the century. It's just saying that with the warming climate it's not going to do as well."

New Brunswick's Department of Energy and Resource Development also contributed to the study.

Forest industry urged to diversify

Balsam fir is important to the New Brunswick economy — thousands of jobs depend on the fir trees that forestry companies grow and harvest for softwood lumber. 

In the southwest, between 75 and 80 per cent of the wood harvested is softwood. Sugar maple, red maple, yellow birch and red oak, all hardwoods, are harvested for lumber as well.

Balsam fir makes up about 22 per cent of the wood harvested each year in New Brunswick. Other softwoods harvested in the province include black spruce, red spruce, white spruce, jack pine and white pine. 

Forest managers will need to adapt to the morphing environment caused by climate change, Taylor said.

A hill full of balsam firs and an indigo coloured sky
Balsam firs make up 20 per cent of the forest in New Brunswick and 16.5 per cent of the forest in the Maritimes. (Submitted by Anthony Taylor)

"If we know that into the future, into the latter part of the century, that climate change is going to have a negative effect on the abundance of balsam fir and these spruce species, then that could have ramifications for future wood supply and forest management."

He recommended forest companies begin diversifying their harvest and testing other species. 

Taylor, who grew up in a forestry family, said he hopes some of the effects of climate change can be curbed to prevent the projected effect it will have on the balsam fir. 

"We're talking, you know, [about] the latter part of the 21st century, which seems so far away … but for my children or grandchildren they're going to witness that. You know this is 50, 75 years down the road."

With files from Information Morning Fredericton