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In the coming years, climate change is expected to have a significant impact on Canada's forests and on the social and economic structures that depend upon them. Because of their role in the carbon cycle, forests themselves can have a direct impact on climate change. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, as well as increasing scientific evidence of a changing climate, focused the world's attention on these two facts, and placed Canada in the position of having to understand the role and response of its forests in relation to climate change and to meet stringent international reporting requirements. This forms the backdrop for Canada's forest-related climate change research, and underpins efforts to develop and implement technologies and strategies to enable Canadian forests and communities to better adapt to the present and future impacts of a changing climate.
Increasing temperatures caused by climate change could move the treeline significantly northward over the course of this century. Because forests respond slowly to change, they may become mismatched with their altered environment. Changes in climate could also increase the frequency and severity of natural events such as storms and wind, drought, and severe fire and insect disturbances. These changes are expected to be less predictable than in the past and to vary regionally, with profound impacts on the health and distribution of forests, as well as on the forest industry and forest-dependent communities.
There is a great deal of scientific research being conducted to better understand how climate change will affect Canada's forests and how to adapt to potential changes. The Integrated Biosphere Simulator (IBIS) is a model that projects future responses of Canada's forest vegetation (such as changes in distribution and productivity) to scenarios of climate change. To date, only one scenario has been investigated, but a newly funded project will allow the model to explore several different scenarios and to investigate the large-scale impacts of some possible adaptation strategies to serve as a guide at both the regional and national scale.
The Government of Canada has developed the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network (C-CIARN)-Forest Sector as part of a national network that facilitates the generation of climate change knowledge, identifies information gaps, and defines research priorities in areas affecting forest users and forest-dependent communities. Over the long term, C-CIARN-Forest is expected to advocate for an increased level of research directed at climate change impacts and adaptation in the forest sector, to enhance collaboration between researchers and forest users, and to find and implement adaptive responses to climate change consistent with the twin objectives of sustainable forests and sustainable forest-dependent communities in Canada.
Forests can act as both a sink and a source of carbon dioxide, which is known to be a contributing factor to climate change. The forest is a sink when it grows and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and when it uses carbon to produce plant tissue. When the forest is harvested, burned, destroyed by insects, or converted to other land uses such as agriculture, housing, or roads, some of the carbon is returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide–the forest becomes a source. It is the net effect of these activities and natural disturbances that will determine whether the forest is a sink or a source over time.
The Climate Change Plan for Canada–the Government of Canada's framework for action on climate change–estimates that our forests could provide an annual sink of 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide from 2008 to 2012. Investments in plantations, policy changes to reduce deforestation, and changes in forest management practices, including intensive silviculture and increased forest conservation, could significantly enhance the size of this sink. On the other hand, severe fire and insect disturbances could reduce the sink.