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Taiga Plains Ecozone+ Evidence for Key Findings Summary

Theme: Science/Policy Interface

Key finding 21
Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reporting

Theme Science/policy interface

National key finding
Long-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.

Ecozone+ key finding: Important data sets collected through broadscale monitoring programs for the ecozone+ are mainly at the non-biological level: climate, hydrology, and permafrost monitoring. In addition, data on some species groups, notably some caribou populations, small mammals, and waterfowl, provide good trend information. A combination of remote sensing and short-term research projects, often extending into the past through the use of proxy records, provides some data on landscape-level changes. A priority often identified for the region is improvement of the use of Traditional Knowledge along with results from science-based studies.

Relatively long-term monitoring programs that are established in the Taiga Plains include small-mammal monitoring to track trends in food webs and population cycles in the boreal forest, and permafrost monitoring along the Mackenzie Valley, providing a latitude transect and a time series of permafrost trends. Most wildlife population data are sporadic, and information is lacking particularly on several boreal caribou herds, landbirds, and predators. Wildlife parasites and disease and forest insect pests show early indications of changes that warrant follow-up through monitoring and research.

Detecting trends over the extensive deltas and forested river valleys and plateaus can only be accomplished by monitoring over large areas. Studies that look at patterns of vegetation and landforms in relation to latitude and climate (for example, Lantz et al., 2010Reference 33) provide the baseline information needed to design effective monitoring at this scale.

Because of this need to monitor changes at broad scales in the ecozone+, and because ground-based monitoring is in short supply, surveys and studies conducted through remote sensing hold potential for improving understanding of status, trends, and ecosystem processes in the Taiga Plains. In some cases, where ground-based monitoring that has been discontinued (for example, monitoring of lake ice phenologyReference 299), satellite-based monitoring can be used to look at short-term trends or to extend existing time series. Results from studies conducted by remote sensing have provided trend data reported on here – including data on primary productivity, fires, and changes in the treeline zone.

Effective ecological monitoring needs ecosystem-based research to direct priorities and to help interpret results. Studies such as the Mackenzie GEWEX (Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment) Study (MAGS) provide detailed information on the status and trends in the atmospheric and hydrological systems of the Mackenzie River Basin. MAGS involves coordinated research into many atmospheric, land surface, and hydrological issues associated with cold climate systems.Reference 300

A monitoring and research priority frequently identified for the region is the need to develop methods that make use of all types of knowledge more effectively.Reference 100, Reference 102, Reference 142, Reference 301 Both science-based work and Traditional Knowledge studies have their limitations when used to look ahead to consequences of future stressors. Baselines are shifting; Traditional Knowledge roots are deep in the past and often based on knowledge gained under a less changeable environment with different conditions. The same dilemma occurs with science-based studies, though on a more compressed timescale, as older studies often are not applicable any more. This points out the need to understand current baseline conditions and drivers of change, as well as to combine forces through coordinated Traditional Knowledge and science studies.Reference 19

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Key finding 22
Rapid change and thresholds

Theme Science/policy interface

National key finding
Growing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.

Ecozone+ key finding: There are signals of rapid ecosystem change in the Taiga Plains, related to climate change. Loss of frozen peatlands is occurring in some areas; increasing permafrost temperatures at several sites is an early warning that other areas will cross the phase-change threshold leading to permafrost degradation, altering terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Other large-scale changes observed in recent years include increases in primary productivity, mainly in the north of the ecozone+, and alteration of vegetation communities in the treeline zone.

Early detection of rapid change requires coordination of ecosystem research and monitoring (science-based and local knowledge) to observe and interpret the responses of ecosystems to stresses. Signals from research and monitoring in the Taiga Plains that may indicate rapid change or approaching thresholds:

Loss of frozen peat plateaus – an observed trend in parts of the ecozone+, has led to significant changes in ecosystems in the Taiga Shield Ecozone+ (in northern Quebec), with conversion of lichen-rich black spruce forest to wetlands. Permafrost monitoring in the Mackenzie Valley reveals that permafrost is warming --this in itself does not have ecological impacts – but signifies an approaching period of more extensive permafrost thawing that is known to have widespread ecological consequences.Reference 12, Reference 19 Thawing of permafrost is a phase change – abrupt by definition (Ice across biomes key finding on page 22).

Signs of change in the treeline zone that indicate fundamental alteration of ecosystems: broadscale increase in tall shrubs, decrease in lichen cover. (Forest key finding on page 13).

Annual growth rates of white spruce in relation to spring temperature: About 75% of white spruce in the study area in the north of the ecozone+ experienced an abrupt change in this relationship (with decreased growth rates), indicative of a threshold having been crossed.Reference 30 (Forest key finding on page 13).

Mismatches in timing: an emerging issue to track for the ecozone+, with warmer temperatures in the spring resulting in earlier ice break-up and earlier peaks of plant growth. A mismatch between peak food source abundance and hatch dates may be a cause of declines of scaup in the western boreal forest (Species of special interest key finding on page 54 and discussion above on climate trends since 1950).

Delta flood regime. A possible emerging trend with potential for rapid, extensive ecosystem change is alteration of flood regimes in the Slave and Mackenzie deltas. The thousands of small lakes and wetlands provide a diversity of habitats important to wildlife; wetland productivity and diversity are maintained by periodic replenishment of sediments and nutrients from high spring floods. Reduction of flooding in north-flowing river systems in North America is a predicted consequence of climate change. In the Slave Delta, high flood frequency may be declining (Wetlands key finding on page 18).

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