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 January 31, 2012
Canada highly vulnerable to environmental change - NASA

 A new NASA study predicts Canada's Prairies and boreal forest will be among the areas hardest hit by climate change.

The model projections paint a portrait of increasing ecological change and stress in Earth's biosphere, with many plant and animal species facing increasing competition for survival, as well as significant species turnover, as some species invade areas occupied by other species.

The NASA study says 37 percent of Earth's land surface will transform from one major ecosystem zone, or biome, into another, while 49 percent of land surfaces will see at least some changes in plant species.

A map of the globe on the NASA study shows a significant area of Canadian prairies in bright red "hot spots" of ecological stress, where 100 percent of the landscape is predicted to see major changes in plant species.

The study forecasts major ecological shifts by 2100, including shifts northward of plant and animal species. Researchers said the large areas in central Canada are vulnerable because they have wide transition zones where grasslands meet boreal regions.

"So anywhere in Canada where you are currently at what's called an 'ecotone,' or the transition zone between the prairie plant communities and the boreal forest plant communities, that's where the greatest change will be observed," said NASA collaborator, Jon Bergengren, a global ecologist and earth systems scientist.

The NASA model used a global temperature increase of two to four degrees this century, as predicted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Earlier studies focused predominately on the migration of tree species in Canada's western forests. Other recent forest studies have looked at the impacts of climate-driven mountain pine beetle infestations in western North America.

The Saskatchewan Research Council has reached conclusions similar to NASA. One of its scientists, Jeff Thorpe, published a report last May suggesting the Prairies will see fewer trees, a loss in wetlands, and an invasion of species dependent on open grassland.

"Some of the grasslands species that we don't have yet, they're down in the United States, we expect them to shift northward into Canada," said Thorpe in an interview with CBC.

This new study from NASA projects even more significant ecological upheaval over a short period of time. It is much easier for plants and animals to migrate or adapt to climatic change over 10,000 years than it is over 100 years.

Canadian policy-makers will be required to make decisions about how to respond to the prairies shifting northward, which in turn will force forested areas further north.

It is unlikely that global responses to climate change will prevent the predicted two to four degree global temperature increase; requiring adaptation measures as opposed to preventative.