Prairie ecosystems in North America will be hit harder than many areas on this continent by the effects of global warming and the damage will become apparent within the next few decades, suggests a University of Toronto researcher.
"Predictions are that global warming will have especially strong, negative impacts on prairie ecosystems in the near future with water shortages being a problem right off the bat," says Professor Jay Malcolm of the Faculty of Forestry. Certain kinds of animals, particularly shore birds and waterfowl, are extremely sensitive to water levels -- both the amount of water available and the timing of seasonal rainfalls. Their migration and breeding is threatened by a drier climate. Malcolm and Adam Markham of World Wildlife International have just completed a year-long study on the effects of North American global warming by comparing computer models of the earth's atmosphere and ecosystems with future scenarios if society does not dramatically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Many kinds of migratory birds take shelter in temporary marshes that form on farmland early in the year, Malcolm explains. As the climate warms, these marshes will dry up earlier and farmers will be tempted to use these dry conditions to cultivate their fields earlier. This will force the birds to fly further north for acceptable nesting areas. Malcolm says a changing climate could cause even further upheavals in an ecosystem that has already been heavily influenced by human activities. For example, plants could be under greater stress in a dry climate, a situation that would allow nuisance plants such as weeds to move in, forcing native species out. Funding for the study was provided by World Wildlife Fund International.
Professor Jay Malcolm
Faculty of Forestry