Current Research Projects (updated September 2014)

Assisted Migration of forest trees as an adaptation to climate change.

In the absence of international and domestic agreements to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,  average global temperatures are likely to rise by 1.5 – 4.5 degrees over preindustrial levels over the next Century.  In our northern latitudes this warming will be much greater, and in the prairie provinces and Alaska, considerable warming has already occurred.

Forest managers are already beginning to plan adaptive management strategies to foster “climate-resilient” forests for the future. There remain, however, very large regions of uncertainty regarding the magnitude of future temperature changes and accompanying shifts in precipitation and seasonality.

A wide range of climate futures are therefore possible.  But we are fairly sure that most of these possible futures will bring more extreme weather events, including longer droughts and more intense storms.  The statistical signal of these events may already be emerging from the background noise of weather statistics.

Under these circumstances, no single forest management strategy is likely to be successful. Foresters should therefore experiment actively and widely with innovative silviculture to hedge their bets against future uncertainty.

Assisted Migration (AM) of tree species and varieties of species from currently warmer climates to regions that are anticipated to be warmer in the future represents one such strategy.Under the general umbrella of AM, I am working on a number of projects:

  1. Establish an evaluation framework to assist forest managers in choosing candidate species for AM activities. This framework, which has already arrived at its first iteration under graduate student Carolyn Talbot incorporates ecophysiological constraints, climatic distance across which MR occurs, and socioeconomic considerations.
  2. Establish species selection trials to test working hypotheses about the possibilities for successful AM.  The first of these trials will be planted in 2015, featuring geographically distinct varieties of five North American conifers.  In addition to growth and survival, we will be measuring winter hardening rates, seasonal phenology, and the reaction of different species to variations in soil moisture.
  3. Explore relationships between tree species functional traits and the potential resilience of relocated populations in the face of future climatic variability.  The search for functional traits that will lend climate resilience to translocated varieties and species is ongoing. In particular, we need to consider traits that will allow different species to coexist in climate-resilient productive stands.
  4. In future plantation work, I am hoping to investigate the ability of AM candidate species to grow in climate resilient forests, using functional traits, and observations of existing complex forest communities to aid int he selection of experimental species mixtures.

Work on AM has implications for commercial forest management, the selection of trees for urban forests and parks, and both the practice and philosophy of ecological restoration. All of these areas of endeavour will be touched by ongoing climate change, and will have to adapt their practices accordingly. The ongoing research in my lab will provide tools to enable managers to maximize the chances that such adaptive efforts will meet with success.

Investigating carbon storage, climatic sensitivities, and biological diversity in plantations and natural stands of jack pine and red pine.

Several commercially important tree species approach their geographical range limits in Manitoba.  Among these are the jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.), which approaches its southern range limit, and red pine (Pinus resinosa Ait.), for which the prairie-forest ecotone represents the northwestern limit of its continuous range.  Thousands of hectares of red pine, have been planted on former jack pine sites since the late 1940’s, especially in the southeastern section of the province due to the increased commercial value of red pine over jack pine.


The goal of this project was to gain insights into the effects of changes in forest cover and forest management on selected aspects of forest growth and resilience to climate change in the SPF.  We approached this work from an interdisciplinary perspective, with three major objectives:  1) quantify ecosystem carbon storage in these contrasting stand types, controlling for the effects of management history, 2) use dendrochronology to compare the responses of red pine and jack pine to climatic anomalies, and 3) use surveys of terrestrial vegetation and lepidoptera to develop comparative indicators of relative biological diversity in jack pine and red pine forests. By integrating the results of these three objectives, we will be able to describe the effects of current silvicultural practices on important elements of the regional biota, and make initial projections of potential stand responses to climate change.

Red pine plantation, Sandilands, 2010 field studies. Photo © Brian Desautels.


This project is now at the publication stage, with several papers either published, in press, or in preparation.  At least 12 summer student assistants, two honours students, and one graduate student have benefitted from the training opportunities provided under this project.

Natural jack pine stand, Sandilands, 2010 field studies. Photo © Brian Desautels.

Environmental Sustainability and Economic Growth

Last but not least is my interest in what is, arguably, a global crisis bigger than climate change.  Many people, both economists and non-economists have asked whether continued economic growth is compatible with environmental protection and sustainability. The recent (some would say) ongoing economic crisis has added fresh voices to this growing list of commentators.  Some have dared to ask “is Capitalism finished?”.

Although there is nothing new about experts questioning the basis of economic growth, two circumstances may put a definitive answer to this question within reach.  First, evidence is mounting that our impacts on the natural world are growing, and as those impacts grow, we may be moving recognizably closer to key thresholds of sustainability for many resources.  Second, publicly available data sets on all many key environmental and economic variables are more available than ever before.  These data sets can be used to address explicit hypotheses about whether growth (or at least our current version of it) is sustainable.

This project steps away from traditional academic research, in that it will be a work that is (hopefully) accessible to educated laypeople.  My overall goal is to answer the question “What do concerned citizens need to know about the environmental challenges of the 21st Century?”.  This is a project that I have been thinking about for quite a few years.  It is also likely to be a few years more before it is ready for final publication.