How will berry plants respond to climate warming? It’s a question biology student Laura Siegwart Collier has been pursuing throughout her three years of graduate work -- and is this week sharing her findings at the International Polar Year conference running April 22-27, in Montreal, Que.
Ms. Siegwart Collier’s PhD research focuses on changes in berry plants at tree line (in the community of Nain) and tundra (in Torngat Mountains National Park) ecosystems in northern Labrador. To test the central question of her doctoral thesis, she tests how berry plants and other tundra vegetation species respond to artificial warming. It’s a topic she has gleaned even more insight on due to numerous discussions with other researchers in her field during the past couple of days in Montreal.
“It’s very inspiring to be here and to listen to the work of scientists from over 40 countries,” she said. “I learned so much from the other presenters in my session, and their positive feedback about our work has reinforced the importance of understanding changes in berry plants across the Canadian Arctic.”
Throughout her testing, Ms. Siegwart Collier looks for change within the whole plant community, such as changes in plant composition, abundance, height, and growth. But in terms of berry plants, she focuses on their cover, growth and fruit production, i.e. the number of fruit produced per square metre each year.
While she says her results are still in the preliminary stage, Ms. Siegwart Collier is noting some interesting findings.
“I'm seeing some decreases in fruit production among berry plants within the experimental warming treatments,” she said. “Among other factors, this could be related to light competition between berry plants and other woody shrubs, like dwarf birch, which are responding positively to warming by increasing in cover and height.”
The PhD student begins her yearly field season in Labrador when the plants start growing and when their flowers are in bloom, usually in early to mid-July. She is typically in the field for up to five weeks at a time – approximately two weeks in Nain and approximately three weeks in Torngat Mountains National Park. Bilberry (blueberry), partridgeberry, black crowberry and alpine bearberry are her four berry species of focus.
Intent on bridging her scientific work with the local community, Ms. Siegwart Collier says she has been “very fortunate” to have consulted with elders from the Inuit community of Nain. Taking into account their knowledge and observations of change in the plants and berries has made her research relevant to the people who live in northern communities, she says. She also says the opportunity to work in Labrador has allowed her to broaden her understanding of plant ecology beyond her previous work in boreal forest ecosystems to tree line and tundra environments.
Ms. Siegwart Collier thinks the impacts of change from changing temperatures will be variable depending on the geographic location of the plants in the province. She believes some areas may see declines in berry numbers, while others may see increases. Ms. Siegwart Collier anticipates wrapping up her master’s program in the fall of 2013.