Potential influence of climate change on ecosystems within the Boreal Plains of Alberta
Ecosystems within the subhumid Boreal Plains of Northern Alberta host ecologically and commercially significant habitat and natural resources. However, these ecosystems exist under a delicate hydrologic balance that may be upset as the climate warms by 2 to 5 °C over the next century. In this study, numerical simulations were used to predict climate change impacts at a catchment composed of a mosaic of Boreal Plains ecosystems including a small pond, peatlands with sparse black spruce, and hillslopes with predominantly aspen forests. Simulations were conducted with a fully integrated groundwater–surface water code using a 2-D model previously calibrated to a decade of hydrologic data that included a range in climatic conditions. Projections from 13 climate change scenarios were simulated from 2011 to 2090 and compared to a base case scenario that assumed no climate change. Results indicate peatland water levels may decline by up to 1 m; however, sensitivity simulations indicate that the decline in water levels may be moderated by several feedback mechanisms that restrict evaporative losses and moderate water level changes. In contrast, higher evapotranspiration losses from the aspen hillslopes are predicted to result in near-surface soils becoming increasingly drier. Thus, the aspen may frequently be water stressed and increasingly susceptible to secondary maladies such as pests and disease. Reduced pond water levels are also predicted with the development of frequent ephemeral conditions in warmer and drier scenarios. Concurrent decreases in stream flow may further impact downstream ecosystems. Further research into the regional health and sustainability of Boreal Plains ecosystems is warranted and could benefit from the development of improved numerical tools capable of extending the processes considered.
Thompson, C., C. A. Mendoza, and K. J. Devito. 2017. Potential influence of climate change on ecosystems within the Boreal Plains of Alberta. Hydrological Processes 31:2110-2124.