Alberta researcher’s paper suggests climate change moving park ecosystems

Red canoes at glacial Lake Louise with Victoria glacier, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

Climate change is pulling the environmental rug out from under the great majority of the parks and protected areas in North America, federal research suggests.

Marc-Andre Parisien, of the Canadian Forest Service, is a co-author of a paper that studies how shifts in climate are causing ecological regions in conserved areas to move.

“The climates that are in western Montana and the panhandle of Idaho and parts of Colorado are eventually going to be in Banff National Park,” he said.

That means the temperature, precipitation, moisture and growing season that define Banff now will be pushed out.

Parisien first calculated the rate of movement of climate zones. He and his colleagues used that climate velocity to estimate how far ecosystems will shift by the end of the century. They then looked at the boundaries of 4,512 protected areas in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

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For nearly 80 per cent of those areas, the climate that helped define them will have simply moved on.

“You have the potential to migrate hundreds of kilometres away from your current location,” said Parisien.

Canadian parks are likely to be most heavily affected, he said.

The study predicts that the climates that helped create the Rocky Mountain national parks in Alberta and British Columbia will move thousands of kilometres by the end of the century. Almost every park in Canada, with the exception of some coastal areas in northern British Columbia and Nunavut, will see its former climate move outside current boundaries.

“Over 100 years, that’ll be challenging for a lot of species,” Parisien said.

“If you’re an insect or a bird, it might be fairly easy. But if you’re a tree or a rare plant, you’re going to have some problems.”

Parisien’s projections are based on current rates of fossil fuel usage. Cutting carbon emissions to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius would improve the outlook considerably.

But changes are already happening, he said. Forests in the Edmonton area have already begun to change in response to a shifting climate.

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“If you live outside Edmonton, you notice a lot of trees dying. These crazy droughts of the last 15 years are killing a lot of trees,” he said.

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“We’re already seeing in many places this shift from an aspen forest to a shrubby, prairie-like ecosystem. That’s been happening over the time span of 10, 15 years.”

Parisien said his research should be used as new parks and protected areas are created to fulfil Canada’s international promises to protect 17 per cent of its land mass by 2020. The key, he said, is for new conservation areas to have some connection with existing ones to give species a chance to follow the climate as it shifts.

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“We hope to guide the design of future protected areas, look at where the climates are today and where they might be tomorrow.”

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