Researcher studies forests' role as carbon sinks

November 21, 2007

    Altaf Arain, associate professor in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences.
A McMaster researcher is studying the ability of forests to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, which may help Canada meet its emission reduction requirements under the Kyoto Protocol.

Altaf Arain, associate professor in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences, is leading the initiative in collaboration with researchers at the University of Toronto and Queen's University.

They are looking at how three eastern Canadian forests uptake atmospheric carbon dioxide and respond to climate change. The forests are located at Turkey Point (conifer), Borden (deciduous) and Timmins (mixed wood), Ont.

"This research would help to assess impacts of various future climatic change scenarios, particularly drought and warming impacts on forest ecosystems in Canada," said Arain.

Since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have been increasing rapidly, mostly because of human activity. Studies suggest that the average global temperature will increase between 1.8 and 4.8C by 2100.

As part of the Kyoto Protocol, a number of countries, including Canada, have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon sinks such as forests can absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, enabling industrial countries to meet their emission reduction requirements.

Forests play an integral role in the carbon cycle by fixing atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, storing carbon in biomass, and releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through decomposition and respiration. They also provide numerous ecological benefits, such as protecting water resources and providing habitat for wildlife.

However, Canadian forests are being threatened by climate change. Forests in western Canada are battling an infestation of mountain pine beetle and boreal forests in the north have been grappling with more frequent droughts and fires over the last two decades.

Forests in eastern Canada as well as the United States, which have been a significant carbon sink over the last few decades, are being affected by warmer winter and summer temperatures as well as changes in regional precipitation patterns.

"Climate-induced changes in regional precipitation patterns could have important implications for the growth and survival of forest ecosystems in Canada, which are an important part our economy," said Arain.

Arain is working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Toronto and Queen's University as well as a number of government and private supporting organizations, including the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), Long Point Region Conservation Authority (LPRCA), the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Oration Power Generation (OPG), Environment Canada, the Climate Research Division (CRD) in Toronto and the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis (CCCMa) in Victoria, BC.