Climate change takes root in northern communities' plants, botanist says

Climate change is altering the useful qualities of some plants, a Montreal botanist says, and changing the way some Indigenous people in northern Canada live.

Alain Cuerrier says the south doesn’t feel climate change, ‘but it’s coming’

Alain Cuerrier says some medicinal plants are changing in the north because of rising temperatures. (submitted by Alain Cuerrier)

Climate change is altering the useful qualities of some plants, a Montreal botanist says, and changing the way some Indigenous people in northern Canada live.

Alain Cuerrier, a University of Montreal professor and Montreal Botanical Garden researcher, has for years spent time interviewing people from small Indigenous communities in northern Quebec, Nunavik and Labrador about the changes they've seen in the environment over the years.

Cuerrier's team has observed that the composition of Labrador tea plants in some areas has changed as the climate has changed, he said.

"Those plants will change as the temperature increases.… The plants will be medicinal, but to a lesser extent," said Cuerrier.

Typically Labrador tea found in the south is less potent than the plants found in the north, he said, because it develops secondary metabolites — organic compounds that give a plant a better chance of survival and help it flourish.

Cuerrier's team has observed that as temperatures continue to rise, Labrador tea in the north is starting to develop secondary metabolites, and is therefore becoming less medicinal. The plant is growing rapidly in the north, but it's not as useful as it once was, he said.

Labrador tea is used by First Nations and Inuit people to treat a variety of ailments, including skin problems, and coughs and colds when made into a tea.

Plants flourishing

Sammie Hunter from Peawanuck, Ont., said he has seen plants growing at an alarming rate in his community, which is near the shores of Hudson Bay, 780 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and 975 km northeast of Winnipeg.

"Willows used to be stubby and sort of short, like knee high," said Hunter. "They can now be eight feet tall, and are growing like wildfires for the last 10 to 15 years, maybe longer."
Sammie Hunter from Peawanuk, Ont., says he has seen plants flourish in his community due to climate change. (Courtesy of Sammie Hunter)

In addition to seeing plants flourish, rising temperatures have caused bodies of water to dry up, Hunter said.

"There used to be a bunch of small ponds, but a lot of them are drying up," Hunter said. "Now the ponds are gone, the ducks are gone, too."

In addition to changes in the physical environment, new types of animals have been spotted in the area, Hunter said.

"Pelicans and garter snakes, we're starting to see those … and before they never existed up here," said Hunter.

Because of changing temperatures, people in Peawanuck can now garden a lot longer, and grow plants they never had before, he said. In fact, the change in temperature is allowing the community to better live off the land.

And the warmer temperatures are drawing more people, including youth, out to the land.

"When I was younger everybody lived on the lands more … but now I'm starting to notice that the younger generation is out there," said Hunter. 

Changes in the trees

Elder Willie Emudluk from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, told Cuerrier the effects of climate change can been seen in the trees.

"He said, 'Cut a tree and look at the rings. There's something happening there.… The rings are wider, and that's because the growing season is longer,'" Cuerrier said.

"This is something we all do as biologists, we look at the rings, and they can tell a bit about the climate … and we know which was really harsh years and years which were more easier for trees to grow."

In addition to changes in Labrador tea, Cuerrier's team has observed that other plants in the north are changing, likely due to climate change. 

For example, grasses are growing at an alarming rate in the north, taking up more space than they did before, he said.

Berry shrubs have also started flourishing in areas where they never grew before, but some berry shrubs in the north are producing fewer berries, Cuerrier said.

The fear is that berry shrubs might start to disappear in parts of the country.

Climate change is only going to get worse, Cuerrier said, and in southern Canada "we don't feel it as much, but it's coming."