Environment

New research chair to study climate change effects on NWT forests


Jennifer Baltzer, an ecologist from Wilfrid Laurier University, has been appointed to the position of Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change.

Baltzer will study how wildfires and permafrost thaw change the territory’s forests, collaborating with other research and community groups to find new ways of predicting the changes to come.

Her appointment was announced by the university last week. Baltzer had spent the past 10 years studying northern forests as what is known as a tier-two research chair, a classification designated for emerging researchers. The new post, a tier-one research chair, comes with a seven-year term that is renewable once.

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Cabin Radio asked Baltzer to assess the state of NWT’s forests and outline the questions driving her research.

This interview was recorded on June 6, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sophie Kuijper Dickson: What is your goal in this new position?

Jennifer Baltzer: My goal in this position is to help advance our understanding of how climate warming is impacting northern forests.

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Climate warming is happening very rapidly in the North and this is impacting forests in a number of ways. One way is through increases in forest fire activity. So, a warmer climate means a drier climate, and more fuel in the forest that is available to burn during these dry years. The 2014 wildfire event in the Northwest Territories is a great example of that, where we had really dry conditions and a lot of lightning activity that led to an extremely severe fire year.

Wildfires are an important natural part of these forests but, as the climate changes, we’re seeing changes in the way fires behave on the landscape. So that’s one key disturbance that my group has been focusing on and will continue to focus on.

The second piece is permafrost thaw. Much in the Northwest Territories is underlined by permafrost and the warming climate leads to the thaw of that permafrost. This can have a range of impacts on northern forests, including water logging of soils, and loss of forest cover. In other places, it can improve drainage and lead to drought.

Trying to understand how the diversity of different thaw processes can impact northern forests is really important. Severe burning during the 2014 fires in the Northwest Territory led to a lot of compositional shifts away from black spruce, which covers much of this land, toward deciduous trees like aspen or birch, or to jack pine. The role that those different forest covers play varies. As we have these disturbances happening on the landscape, the nature of the forest can change and the types of wildlife it supports can change.

What would you say are the key questions of the moment when it comes to northern forests?

One of the new things we’re going to be starting – as part of this program, in collaboration with the fire management group in Fort Smith – is studying the impact of holdover fires.

These are fires where once the large fire burns through, it continues to smoulder in the peat soils and can reignite early in spring the next year. There are many questions about this from a fire behaviour perspective, but also in terms of understanding how these ecosystems will recover following these kinds of unique and severe fire impacts.

Another key piece relates to the diversity of types of thermokarst [landforms created by permafrost thaw] that we see manifesting themselves on the landscape of the Northwest Territories. We’re collaborating on an initiative that maps thermokarst features across the landscape. This data set will really help us start to ask questions about the different ways that permafrost thaw manifests itself in the landscape – what this mean for forest composition, for vegetation changes, and for different ecological functions of these systems.

This will really help to better understand some of these transitions and the impacts of ongoing thaw on forest ecosystems in the North.

The news release announcing your appointment mentions a focus on capacity-building and knowledge-sharing in Indigenous communities.

One of the things we’ve been working really actively on is collaborating with communities in on-the-land knowledge-sharing, through engagement of youth in on-the-land camps and through training in these on-the-land settings. Through a variety of funding opportunities, we’ve been able to contribute to collaborations with communities in the Dehcho, Sahtu and Tłı̨chǫ, helping to support on-the-land initiatives. The nature of these varies depending on the community and what they’re interested in achieving from on-the-land initiatives.

Another way we really try to support capacity-building is, wherever possible, bringing community researchers as part of our teams so they can be learning about the methods we’re employing, and helping to bring some of that information back to communities as well.

Part of the reason I’m up in Yellowknife right now is helping to strengthen and grow the Laurier-GNWT partnership, but also helping to support the expansion of partnerships of Laurier with other governments and groups in the territory. And so that will be part of my role as a tier-one Canada Research Chair as well. I’m really looking forward to helping to identify places where Laurier can contribute to research and capacity-building in the North.

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