RESEARCH

Use the interactive map below to learn more about our past and present projects, and where we have been!

Boreal Wildfire Ecology

Wildfire is the dominant agent of disturbance in the boreal biome and is critical to the renewal of these forests. However, climate warming is intensifying the boreal fire regime leading to larger, more frequent, and more severe fires. This change in disturbance is altering forest regeneration though altered seedbed conditions and reductions in seed rain and viability that with the most pronounced effects on the serotinous species that dominate Canada’s boreal. Climate warming and drying also modify the regeneration conditions, creating a stressful environment for seedling establishment. Changes in post-fire regeneration have profound consequences for the composition, structure and function of boreal forests.

In partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) and funded by the GNWT, NSERC, and NASA ABoVE, we established a NWT-wide network of over 600 permanent sampling plots where we are working to characterize these changes and forecast the implications of this with a view to supporting forestry, land use, and wildlife management decisions in the NWT. This project involves collaborations with scientists from across North America meaning students have the opportunity to work with a large interdisciplinary team to tackle these questions within the NWT and at the continental scale.

Boreal Forests on Thawing Permafrost

The majority of Canada’s boreal forest occurs on permafrost soils (i.e., soils that are at or below 0°C perennially). The distribution of permafrost has profound implications for tree species distributions and ecosystem functioning. However, northern latitudes are warming at 3-4x the global average, which is driving rapid and accelerating permafrost thaw. Changes in permafrost conditions can alter the soil resource environment for the overlying forest vegetation dramatically both through increases and decreases in nutrients and water availability.

This NSERC-funded project involves collaborative efforts across sites ranging from the permafrost-free southern limit of boreal forest to tree-line forests on continuous permafrost, we are investigating how local and regional gradients in permafrost conditions affect forest structure and function using space-for-time studies, experimental manipulation and repeated measures of large and small forest plots. This project also interfaces with our wildfire work where we are investigating the interactive effects of fire and permafrost thaw on post-fire ecosystem responses.

Warming-Induced Changes at the Boreal Forest-Tundra Ecotone

Past warming has caused northward shifts of the forest-tundra ecotone leading to the expectation of a northward migration of the current arctic treeline in response to rapid high latitude warming. The response of arctic treelines has to date, however, been quite variable for a number of reasons. In the Northwest Territories, there are key changes underway at this transition, including increased tree growth, infilling of forests below the treeline, and expansion of shrubs on the low arctic tundra, which are facilitating the expansion of boreal plant taxa.

This project has been supported by ArcticNet, Polar Knowledge Canada, and NSERC. Our investigations to date at this fascinating transition include tree growth responses to recent warming and evaluations of the potential role of alder expansion on the ecology and ecohydrology of the low arctic tundra. I am quite interested in bringing together these ecotonal studies with the fire project to begin to evaluate the role of wildfire in the expansion and function of tall shrubs in this region.

Boreal Forests in a Global Context

Many questions exist relating to how different forest types respond to the range of environmental changes they are currently faced with. Part of the group’s efforts include evaluation of forest structure and dynamics using comparative analyses of Smithsonian Institute’s Forest Global Earth Observatory plot data. Dr. Baltzer is the PI for the only boreal plot in this network located at Scotty Creek, near Fort Simpson, NWT. Data from this plot have been used to address questions about global trends in biodiversity, forest structure, and biotic interactions. At the plot level, we are investigating questions relating to the role of permafrost thaw in driving forest dynamic processes and how this can be scaled using remote sensing methods. This project provides opportunity to collaborate with forest scientists globally on very large-scale questions about the response of forests to global change, including participation in Smithsonian ForestGEO analytical workshops.

Changing Northern Water Resources

Dr. Baltzer is the PI for three Global Water Futures projects focused on northern water resources. The first of these, Northern Water Futures, focuses on improving our understanding of how the high latitude land cover changes described above may alter the quality and quantity of water entering aquatic ecosystems, with impacts to the communities and wildlife that rely on these systems. This project involves a 20-investigator multidisciplinary team of researchers. We are working to translate the findings from NWF in two different ways: through modelling and through on-the-land knowledge sharing with Indigenous community partners. In a second GWF project, an team is working to improve our ability to model important ecohydrological feedbacks associated with landcover change to improve the representation of these processes in earth system models. The third project involves collaborative on-the-land events where NWF scientists come together with Indigenous elders and youth to share knowledge about land cover change, its impact on water resources, and work together to develop community-based monitoring plans.