Scientific intervention is needed in order to protect North America’s forests in the face of climate change according to Sally Aitkin, professor and director of the Forest Science Undergraduate Program at the University of British Columbia, who spoke at the Myer Horowtiz Theatre last week.
That intervention, according to Aitkin, should include the method of assisted migration — a controversial process where the natural rate of movement for a tree species is artificially sped up to ensure the trees are well-suited to their climates.
“We’ve got to get on it. We’re losing species. Let’s go,” Aitkin said, delivering her address entitled, “Can genetics help climate-proof our forests?” to an audience of more than 75 people during the 68th Forestry Lecture series hosted by the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources.
“We could let nature take its course, but we are probably going to end up with pretty unhealthy forests, forests that aren’t producing much in terms of wood and timber supply, forests that aren’t sequestering much carbon, and forests that maybe aren’t the best habitat for a number of things that are out there that we rely on to be there. So, we need to move things around,” she said.
She added with climate change in North America shifting ecosystems by seven to 10 kilometres per year, and since most species of trees can only migrate to more hospitable climates through natural processes at a rate of 100 metres per year, the need to intervene through assisted migration couldn’t be more urgent.
“There are still trees there, but they are in the wrong places. Perhaps we should be making our best guesses as to what kinds of trees will do well in the climates of the future and help that process along so we can have future-adapted forests,” Aitkin said.
The value of assisted migration is not only in protecting and conserving the more than 50 species of trees that exist in British Columbia and Alberta; it could also have benefits for the Canadian logging industry by reducing instances of diebacks, when forests retreat.
“If we can offset just 15 per cent of this decline through assisted migration, that’s worth about $200 million annually,” Aitkin explained.
In an attempt to make more informed decisions about assisted migration in the future, Aitkin also discussed an ongoing tree gene-mapping project called AdapTree that she is working on with a team of researchers.
“We’ve started on a large genomics project that is really focused on how we can use information about adaptation at the DNA level to help inform what the genetic effects will be of assisted migration,” Aitkin said.
“That way, we can we learn from the existing distribution of genetic variation in trees to assist migration in a way that reduces risks and increases the changes of having productive stands in the future.”
Aitkin clarified that AdapTree was not experimenting with genetically modified trees, and said the study has gone to great lengths to ensure the public is not misinformed about the goals of the project.
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