We’ve spent quite a bit of time on the blog talking about warming temperature trends and what they mean for our forests. For example, the report that studied 2011’s Flat Top fire in Slave Lake predicts that as temperatures rise, wildfires will only continue to get more powerful – and we’ll need the best possible tools to fight them. Special funding is helping us combat this.
But wildfires aren’t the only problem – they’re just the most visible one. Although our forests look peaceful, they’re fighting battles every day – with diseases, the mountain pine beetle, and other invasive species. And lately, we’re seeing more – and new – outbreaks, linked to warming temperatures.
If we’re going to help our forests be sustainable, we need to harness their natural potential through genetic conservation, so they can thrive in difficult conditions. Luckily, we have a team of folks who are equipped to do exactly that: Alberta’s Tree Improvement and Seed Centre (ATISC).
The centre works to protect the genetic health of our forest tree species. A big part of this is conserving the resources you can’t see with the naked eye: genes. By studying and conserving the genetics of our forest trees, we can determine which ones have the best internal resources (genetic make-up) to adapt to new weather conditions and attacks from insects and disease.
Nature or nurture? Both! Phenotype = genes x environment
Genes can help trees adapt because they are one of the factors that helps determine a tree’s phenotype – its physical characteristics (such as height and disease resistance). But it’s not the only one – phenotype is determined by genotype and the environment in which a tree grows (in other words, the soil, moisture, temperature, light, and other factors).
Genetic trials allow us to see how the genetic differences between trees can help them adapt to different environments. Seed is collected from many trees across Alberta and planted in trials across the province – from Castle Mountain to north of High Level – under various environmental conditions. Some of these trials are attacked by insects or become infected with diseases. By observing how each type of tree grows in different soil, weather, and light conditions, we can see which ones can best adapt to certain environments and challenges.
We can use this knowledge to select and breed hardier trees that are better at weathering changing conditions. The end result: it’s the natural adaptability of our forest trees that will help them – and us – adjust to climate change.