Forest station

Forest station

At a new facility in B.C's forests, researchers are looking for signs of serious environmental threats
December 1, 2002

At a new facility in B.C.'s forests, researchers are looking for signs of serious environmental threats.

As Canadians develop an increasing interest in the Kyoto Protocol, researchers in British Columbia's forests are busy climbing trees and trying to get a better view.

But they haven't scaled the heights for recreational purposes. The researchers from the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia are on the lookout for the threat posed by climate change. In fact, their efforts in the trees and on the ground are helping scientists around the world understand the effects of this serious environmental problem.

In particular, the researchers are examining the ability of forests to act as carbon sinks, storing carbon as they breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis. Learning about this process offers researchers insight into climate change because CO2 is the most significant greenhouse gas (GHG) linked to climate change.

"Our facility appeals to a wide range of scientists, environmentalists, and forestry managers who want to understand how forests are behaving in response to climate change," says Dr. Nigel Livingston, Director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Forest Biology. The facility also offers a chance to better understand the other half of the puzzle-determining the role that forests might play in slowing the rate of climate change as they take CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The Centre's forest labs are nestled in coastal temperate rain forest near Campbell River, a few hours north of Victoria. It's a rich and diverse forest ecosystem that's home to a greater variety of organisms than in any other type of forest in Canada. It's also within easy reach of Dr. Livingston's research partners at other universities, including Dr. Andrew Black of the University of British Columbia's Biometeorology and Soil Physics Group.

Dr. Black's work focuses on trying to understand the processes that control how forests use carbon. Along with a number of other researchers, he is gathering data using three micrometeorological towers that range from five to 42 metres in height. The towers take `round-the-clock measurements of the CO2 that's exchanged between the trees and the atmosphere. A large part of the work on the site is aimed at establishing a long-term, continuous record of this exchange. The data is turned into three-dimensional pictures that map how CO2 is moving over the forest. These pictures or "physical models" help scientists in a variety of disciplines understand and predict regional and global climate changes.

The data is also essential for the development of regional and global carbon budgets, which would account for things like the amount of carbon stored in forests. Eventually, this could help countries and policy makers develop ways to manage and trade CO2-related GHG emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

The facility at Campbell River also stands out because it allows researchers to build continuous records in three distinct areas: a clear-cut area, a 12-year-old forest, and a 50-year-old forest. Each area has a different profile when it comes to its ability to absorb CO2. Generally, the older the forest the greater its capacity to absorb CO2.

The richness and biological diversity of the forest lab is matched by its state-of-the-art facilities, which will soon include a mobile lab towed behind a truck. Researchers are already able to save time by processing samples right at the site, compared to the early days when raw data was taken back to university labs for analysis.

Over the years, there has also been a big change in the creature comforts for researchers. Today, a nearby University of British Columbia Research farm offers a comfortable night's sleep after working in the trees. "It's much better than it used to be," jokes Dr. Livingston. "When we started out, the students all used to complain about spending the summer living in tents."


Scientifists at the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree that greenhouse gases (GHGs), produced when we burn fossil fuels like oil and coal, have led to a big increase in global temperatures over the last century. This phenomenon, known as climate change, has the potential to transform our lives in profound and unpredictable ways.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are the most significant GHG linked to climate change. But scientists and policy makers are faced with a big problem when it comes to deciding how to manage CO2 emissions in ways that will reduce climate change. "Globally, we can't account for all the carbon in the carbon cycle," says Dr. Nigel Livingston, Director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Forest Biology. Dr. Livingston and his team are working to better understand the role of forests as carbon sinks in the carbon cycle.

In fact, the Centre's research related to carbon sinks could be extremely important for countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The Protocol potentially allows nations to earn emissions credits for methods or policies-like maintaining or expanding forests-that counteract their overall CO2 emissions. However, because no one thoroughly understands how carbon sinks work, a system of credits has yet to be approved. The Centre's work could change all that.


The University of Victoria's Centre of Forest Biology is being financed in part by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Province of British Columbia through Forest Renewal British Columbia (FRBC).

Land used to access the forest site is provided by Canada's TimberWest and international forest products company Weyerhaeuser. The decision to set aside the land represents a serious financial commitment to the project by these two companies-support that they see as an investment. In fact, by agreeing to let the Centre of Forest Biology use the land for the next five years, the companies are postponing harvesting timber worth more than $500,000.

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