Jennifer Baltzer, a Wilfrid Laurier University ecologist, has been named Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change.
Baltzer will study how wildfires and thawing permafrost are altering the territory’s forests, working with other research and community groups to find new ways to predict future changes.
His appointment was announced by the university Last week. Baltzer had spent the past 10 years studying northern forests under what’s called a Tier Two Research Chair, a classification designated for emerging scholars. The new position, a Tier 1 Research Chair, has a seven-year term renewable once.
Cabin Radio asked Baltzer to assess the state of the Northwest Territories’ forests and to define the questions that guide his research.
This interview was recorded on June 6, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sophie Kuijper Dickson: What is your objective in this new position?
Jennifer Baltzer: My goal in this position is to help advance our understanding of the impact of global warming on northern forests.
Global warming is happening very rapidly in the North and this is impacting forests in many ways. One of them is to increase wildfire activity. So a warmer climate means a drier climate and more fuel in the forest available to burn in those dry years. The 2014 wildfire in the Northwest Territories is a great example of this, where we had very dry conditions and lots of lightning activity that led to an extremely severe fire year.
Wildfires are an important natural part of these forests, but as the climate changes, we see changes in how fires behave on the landscape. So that’s a key disruption that my group has focused on and will continue to focus on.
The second element is permafrost thawing. Much of the Northwest Territories is marked by permafrost, and global warming is causing that permafrost to thaw. This can have a range of impacts on northern forests, including waterlogging and loss of tree cover. In other places it can improve drainage and lead to dryness.
Trying to understand how the diversity of different thawing processes can impact northern forests is really important. Severe fires during the 2014 fires in the Northwest Territories resulted in many compositional shifts from black spruce, which covers much of this land, to deciduous trees such as aspen or birch, or towards jack pine. The role that these different forest covers play varies. As these disturbances occur in the landscape, the nature of the forest may change and the types of wildlife it supports may change.
In your opinion, what are the key issues of the moment in terms of northern forests?
One of the new things we’re going to be doing – as part of this program, working with the Fort Smith fire management group – is to study the impact of persistent fires.
These are fires where once the big fire has burned, it continues to smolder in the boggy soils and may reignite in early spring the following year. There are many questions about this from a fire behavior perspective, but also in terms of understanding how these ecosystems will recover from these unique and severe types of fire impacts.
Another key element concerns the diversity of types of thermokarst [landforms created by permafrost thaw] that we see playing out in the landscape of the Northwest Territories. We are collaborating on an initiative that maps thermokarst features across the landscape. This data set will really help us start asking questions about the different ways in which permafrost thaw manifests itself across the landscape – what this means for forest composition, for vegetation changes, and for different ecological functions. of these systems.
This will really help to better understand some of these transitions and the impacts of the ongoing thaw on northern forest ecosystems.
The press release announcing your appointment mentions a focus on capacity building and knowledge sharing in Indigenous communities.
One of the things that we have been working on very actively is working with communities in sharing knowledge on the ground, by engaging young people in on-the-ground camps and training in those on-the-ground settings. Through various funding opportunities, we have been able to contribute to collaborations with Dehcho, Sahtu and Tłı̨chǫ communities, helping to support initiatives on the ground. The nature of these varies depending on the community and what it wishes to achieve from on-the-ground initiatives.
Another way we really try to support capacity building is, where possible, to incorporate community researchers into our teams so they can learn the methods we employ and help pass on some of that information. communities as well.
Part of the reason I’m in Yellowknife right now is to help strengthen and grow the Laurier-GNWT partnership, but also to help support the expansion of Laurier’s partnerships with other governments and groups. of the territory. So that will also be part of my role as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair. I really look forward to helping identify places where Laurier can contribute to research and capacity building in the North.