Monday, July 9, 2007

Tackling climate change in the Canadian prairies

Leader-Post (Saskatchewan): Call it a new fight with an old foe. More than 70 years after helping farmers battle the Prairie climate during the Dirty Thirties, Saskatchewan's Shelterbelt Centre has a new fight on its hands. Trees across Western Canada are struggling to adapt to rising temperatures and volatile weather, say experts at Agricultural Canada's Shelterbelt Centre.

With this extreme weather projected to grow more frequent, researchers say Prairie trees could face a grim future. "We're seeing trees begin to die or weaken across the provinces," said Dan Walker, a senior researcher at the centre. "The climate has changed so much."

Now, 60 years after it began researching tree improvements -- and more than a century after first distributing trees on the Prairies -- the Shelterbelt Centre is tackling a new challenge: Global warming. "We're trying to get trees that are adaptable to the climate change," Walker said. "We're talking drought, frost tolerant and hardy trees we can send out to farmers."

…This year marks the 60th anniversary of the tree-improvement program. Under the program, researchers have been developing genetically superior trees and shrubs that can live and thrive in the harsh Prairie climate. To date, more than 50 tree and shrub species have been tested through the program. However, researchers say climate change is undoing decades of the centre's work.

… Rising temperatures and erratic moisture conditions are occurring too rapidly for adaptation to take place. While Saskatchewan's trees are safe for the next decade, many are already showing signs of decline, added Walker. "Right now, trees are failing largely because of the drought a few years back," he said, adding that increasing periods of extreme heat and drought will make survival harder in the future.

…"We've screened literally thousands of trees, looking for the 'silver bullet' of trees," Schroder said. "We need to spread this adaptability to the whole gene pool." Developing these trees is a long process, however. Samples can be tested within the lab in drought and cold conditions, but researchers still must observe how trees react outside to pests and actual weather. The centre has some test plantings that have been growing for more than 25 years.

However, Schroder said the program took a big step with the recent release of the Okanese poplar. The Okanese has demonstrated the ability to tolerate high levels of drought and resist disease. It has also shown a remarkable growth rate, rising 10 metres in as little as 10 years. "It's even more hardy than the Walker poplar," Walker said.

Distribution of the Okanese hybrid will begin in spring 2008. It will be made available through the Prairie Shelterbelt Program and released to commercial nurseries.

But environmental research at the Shelterbelt Centre involves more than just tree-breeding. Newly developed hybrid poplars have been proven to reduce carbon emissions in the air and Schroder is researching using willows as a form of biofuel.

"These programs leave the centre well-positioned to keep Saskatchewan green in the future," Neill said.

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