What we do
Students and faculty in the departments of Biology and Geography at Memorial University are researching the sensitivity of tundra and treeline ecosystems to climate change in highland areas of Newfoundland and Labrador. The aims are to better understand these ecosystems in relation to their local climates and to determine how they evolved in the past and to predict what will happen to them under a future, perhaps very different, climate.
Climate is the characteristic weather at a place - its average and extreme conditions. Variability and change are normal for climate. In the past, Earth’s climate has fluctuated naturally between glacial cold periods and tropical hot periods. Climate changes have usually taken many thousands of years, although rapid changes have also been recorded. Today, because of human activities, climate is changing faster than it has for thousands of years. On average, Earth is heating up. But this warming is not uniform. Whereas most of the planet has become warmer, some regions have become cooler - while some are becoming wetter, others have become drier. For example, over the past 50 years, while the western Arctic warmed, the northwest Atlantic Ocean, coastal Labrador, and West Greenland became colder.
A Warmer Future?
Using computer models, climate scientists predict warming of mid-latitude continental areas by more than 5 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years. Warming in Newfoundland and Labrador may be less than that. This is because the Labrador Sea, which cools our climate, may become colder. With temperatures rising slightly, especially in the winter, this region is expected to become wetter, with more of the winter precipitation falling as rain or freezing rain. What effects will such changes have on highland ecosystems in our province?
Climate Change and Highland Ecosystems
Ecosystems are made up of plants and animals and their environments. Climate is a key environmental control. As the climate changes, so do the kinds and numbers of plant and animal species, and how they interact. In highland areas, differences in climate and therefore of vegetation communities occur over short distances because of the normal decrease of air temperature with altitude. A climb of only a few hundred metres takes us from boreal forest to alpine tundra. In these central Labrador highland areas some arctic-alpine species are at their southern limit of occurrence and are therefore rare provincially. These plants are particularly sensitive to climate change. Highland plant communities are important to the animals, as they provide food for caribou and other herbivores. Other changes are occurring which affect these highland ecosystems. For example, moose are appearing in the Mealy Mountains, as they expand eastward across central Labrador. And coyotes have recently invaded the highlands of western Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park and have begun to prey on caribou there.
Some of Our Research Questions
How do highland plant communities respond to a change in climate? For example, if there is warming will the tree limit simply move upslope, or will vegetation changes be more complex? What will happen to tundra plant species and the animals they support?
What will be the effects of vegetation changes on the birds, mammals, and insects that are part of this ecosystem? In particular, what will happen to already threatened woodland caribou populations, such as the Red Wine and Mealy Mountain herds?
How will climate change affect the expansion of invasive and introduced non-native species of plants, and insects and other animals?
How will these changes affect the overall biodiversity of the region?
How will these changes affect the people who benefit from highland ecosystems in terms of food, employment, and spiritual values?
How can we best communicate what we learn about climate change to the public and to industry and government agencies, as plans are made for local resource development and utilization?