Forest Investment Account (FIA) - Forest Science Program
FIA Project Y091076

    Effects of climate change on high-elevation plant communities and their ecological processes
Project lead: Simard, Suzanne (University of British Columbia)
Contributing Authors: Osorio, Federico G.; Simard, Suzanne W.; MacKenzie, William H.
Subject: Forest Investment Account (FIA), British Columbia
Series: Forest Investment Account (FIA) - Forest Science Program
This project is being conducted by UBC MSc-PhD student, Federico Osorio, under the supervision of UBC Professor Suzanne Simard, committee members Will McKenzie (MOFR) and Gary Bradfield (UBC), and regional ecologist Ray Coupé (MOFR). There are two main phases of the project: a) description and classification of high-elevation ecosystems (underway) and, b) establishment of permanent installations for monitoring and evaluating vegetation responses to climate change. The first phase is addressing the high degree of variability of high-elevation ecosystems by organizing the vegetation into hierarchical units to produce ecologically meaningful classes that can be identified and mapped; these classes will provide a basis for sound management of forested and non-forested ecosystems. This biogeoclimatic classification will then be used to select representative ecosystems for the second phase of the study, to monitor climate change effects on high-elevation ecosystems. The two phases of this proposed research will increase our understanding of the basic character of high-elevation ecosystems and their response to predicted warming trends.
Since high-elevation environments respond rapidly to minute changes in climate they provide realistic means for assessing whether the climate in British Columbia will follow predicted global patterns of change or whether other conditions (e.g. increased snowfall) can counteract global warming at a local scale. The results of the research project well help land managers and scientists determine how the ecology of the province might respond to human induced changes in regional climates, including how the forests of British Columbia might change in composition and distribution under new climatic conditions. As most of the ecosystems in the province depend on high-elevation snow catchments to meet growing season water requirements, the project also has implications for understanding how the hydrological conditions of our ecosystems might respond to changes in snow melt timings and new water uptake capacities.
The project began in May, 2007, when Federico conducted a thorough survey (90 relevé plots, 45 soil samples, snow-water equivalents and snow depths measurements) of the Columbia Mountain study area. The observed ecosystems are being identified, organized, and characterized following biogeoclimatic principals to formulate generalizations leading to a site-specific classification. This work will continue in 2008, when we will further identify, sample, and describe the main parkland and alpine subzones within the Central Cariboo, 100-Mile House, and Quesnel Forest Districts. The preliminary classification and reconnaissance of the study area will serve as the basis for the site selection process for the second phase of the research. Capturing the current botanical character of the alpine and subalpine will also allow future researchers to determine how the ecosystems have changed. The proposed research will compliment the initial classification conducted at the biogeoclimatic unit level because it provides a more standardized and quantitative measure of vegetation at the site level, which can be used to refine the classification. Also, it provides a basis for long-term monitoring of soil temperature and date of snow-melt, which in turn will be used to understand the variety of site types and their resulting vegetation units.
In 2008 and 2009, we will establish permanent monitoring installations following the published protocol currently used world-wide, Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA; see website purpose of the GLORIA research initiative is to establish a long-term observation network to obtain standardized data on alpine biodiversity and vegetation patterns on a global scale. The collected data can help researchers world-wide analyze the risks of biodiversity losses and the vulnerability of high mountain ecosystems, as well as to determine the seasonal rates of change in the distribution of vegetation that might result from human-induced climate change. Alpine environments are unique in that they occur at all latitudes around the globe; therefore, it is the only terrestrial ecosystem that can be compared at a global scale for changes along climatic gradients (altitude, latitude, and longitude). The standardized methodology aims at analyzing the patterns of species richness, abundance and vegetation cover along altitudinal gradients across mountain regions of the world. The relation of these patterns to environmental gradients will be analyzed at local and global scales by GLORIA scientists, and monitored to determine the potential effects of climate change on high elevation ecosystems.
Integrating British Columbia’s biogeoclimatic ecosystem classification into the GLORIA research design will help us identify the potential threats of climate change to species, species groups, life forms and functional groups in BC. The long term monitoring plots will assist us and future researchers in the development and implementation of adaptive management measures to help ameliorate the main threats that nearly 17% of the province's land base is facing. The design of the second phase of the project is simple and cost effective. Based on the interim results of phase 1, we will select an adequate number of target regions (a minimum of three plus the master site) yielding a total of four summits per target region. Each summit area is subdivided into two elevation zones in which 16 permanent plots will be installed and analyzed for vegetation and soil temperature data on a yearly basis. The basic idea behind this design is to quantify the rate of change of vegetation in high elevation environments. This design will ensure that the number of target regions will adequately represent the variations in climate within the project area (e.g. windward vs. leeward areas). The data from each target region will also be used fine tune the high-elevation BEC classification.
In 2008, we will begin planning and develop global collaborations. Upon registration of the proposed project with the GLORIA database, collaboration will be sought with the North American Chapter held by the Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT). By 2009, sufficient replicate long-term monitoring sites will be established along an existing climate (precipitation and temperature) gradient -within each of the identified subzones or variants- in order to monitor climate, soil and vegetation response over yearly intervals.

This information will be used for:
a) Finalizing the BEC for the area.
b) Observing the rate of change of the alpine and subalpine vegetation.
c) Contributing and integrating with the global GLORIA network.
d. Enhancing our understanding of ecological processes in high-elevation ecosystems of the Columbia Mountains.

The main forest management issues being addressed are:
a) Analyzing processes governing the establishment and regeneration of subalpine forests.
b) Monitoring changes in abundance and distribution of non-timber forest products, including grazing capacities and potentials.
c) Understanding basic functioning of the upper-treeline forested ecosystems.
d) Defining upper operability limits for timber extraction, and developing regeneration strategies based both current and future climatic conditions.
Related projects:  FSP_Y102076FSP_Y113076


Executive summary (18Kb)
Poster (2.2Mb)

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Updated April 29, 2011 

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