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More rain, less snow: what that means for SE

Posted: March 28, 2014 - 12:03am

Alaska and Canada share shorelines, watersheds, fish and an icefield. Why not science?

Allison Bidlack, Director of the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, said that’s just what scientists from both sides of the border are beginning to do.

“What I’m trying to do is make sure there’s a space for this to happen,” Bidlack said of the scientific collaboration. “We’re asking the same questions; we’re using some of the same methodology.”

Climate Change

Sari Saunders and Andy MacKinnon, both Research Ecologists with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Coast Area, said working with Southeast Alaskan scientists strengthens their research and gives them more confidence in their findings and projections.

“It boosts the power of our scientific analysis,” Saunders said.

Working together, researchers have been able to put together a climate change map spanning six degrees of latitude along the Pacific coast.

“We’re starting to look at some of the more detailed changes that might occur with climate change,” Saunders said. “It could affect salmon habitat, aquaculture — all sorts of things.”

“Projections suggest maybe some … watersheds in north and southeast Alaska, which are snow and glacier dominated, will in the future be less dependent on snow and glaciers, and more like rain dominated systems,” MacKinnon said.

Fifty years in the future, in other words, Southeast Alaska’s weather may look a lot more like British Columbia’s.

“It’s not looking good for Eaglecrest (Ski Area) 50 years from now,” Bidlack said.

It’s not looking good for Vancouver ski resorts, either.

Climate change models indicate weather systems will start shifting east, toward inland mountains, and north, meaning more rain and less snow in future years.

Yellow Cedar

Paul Hennon, a forest pathologist with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, has been collaborating with Canadian researchers on issues surrounding the widespread death of yellow cedar trees.

Climate change has led to less snow in Southeast, meaning the trees’ shallow roots are less insulated from late-season freezes. At a soil temperature of around 23 degrees, the roots freeze and the tree dies, he said.

“We’re not confined to looking at in a small space at a problem,” he said. “It’s a much broader area.”

Those six degrees of latitude have allowed researchers on each side to see how yellow cedar grows — and dies — in different habitats depending on latitude.

“It shifts up in elevation as you move south in latitude,” Hennon said.

They’re also researching how the forest changes after yellow cedar death.

“We’re realizing that the coastal temperate rainforest is a massive entity that doesn’t stop down at Ketchikan,” Hennon said. “It’s really giving us more confidence. Scientists just want more data.”

A “Renaissance”

Soil scientist David D’Amore, the “historian” of the group of collaborating scientists, said the concept of a coastal temperate rainforest was developed about 25 years ago.

“They had the vision that this was a really important ecological area that we really needed to understand,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of terrestrial and aquatic activity … that’s why we have cruise ships.”

In Alaska, priorities focused on what could be managed, like the timber harvest. Recently, however, they’ve started looking at the Tongass National Forest more holistically. After all, timber harvests are affected by climate change when climate change causes yellow cedar death, for instance. Wetlands, watersheds, hydrology, snow: all impact the ecosystem as a whole.

“Now we can really look at it as a system,” D’Amore said. “It’s just been a real Renaissance in terms of how we are … approaching understanding the ecosystems that surround us, as well as what the challenges are.”

Challenges, future

At first, most collaborative efforts focused on integrating existing research — but that’s easier said than done. The same study can be done slightly different ways, with slightly different measurements and parameters, which means the two pieces don’t quite fit together they way they could.

The Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center is helping to facilitate collaborative grant proposal writing and monthly transboundary webinars. Possibilities could also involve student exchanges, Bidlack said.

“It’s all one ecosystem,” Bidlack said. “It makes sense ecologically, but it’s challenging from a political boundary sense.”

It’s also challenging funding-wise; many grants end or begin at the border or fund, for example, only researchers from one side of the border.

Future research could involve not just the biophysical, but also the social and economic.

“I think everybody’s pretty excited about carrying on with the projects we’ve got right now,” MacKinnon said. “We’re wrapping up a couple of them and trying to look for new opportunities to work together in ways that would be mutually beneficial.”

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