headshot of Prof. Merritt Turetsky
Prof. Merritt Turetsky

A rash of wildfires burning in northern Ontario, B.C. and California has spurred national news stories on the topic.

U of G Prof. Merritt Turetsky says although forest fires have been a natural part of history, today the fires are burning longer and more intensively due to climate change. Wildfires are one of the clearest “ripple out effects” of climate change and the increase in severe wildfires is leading to higher carbon dioxide emissions and the displacement of more Canadians from their homes than any other natural disaster, she adds.

But beyond the obvious consequences, she says, these severe wildfires cause fundamental changes to our iconic forests. Severe wildfires harm forest soil, making it difficult for conifer tress to grow and for forests to regenerate. This not only impacts the stability of these important forests but also affects wildlife habitat.

Instead of regeneration of conifer forests, deciduous trees such as aspen and birch are cropping up after fires. A loss of conifer forest area means big changes in how the boreal biome interacts with the earth’s climate system. The consequences of fire-induced shifts in the structure of boreal forests would be far-ranging from small-scale changes in biodiversity to global-scale changes in the amount of the sun’s energy reflected back into space and in greenhouse gas emissions.

An ecosystem ecologist, Turetsky investigates the impact of climate change on the Canadian landscape, including the incidence of wildfires. As the holder of the Canada Research Chair in Integrative Ecology, she studies plant ecology, biogeochemistry and global change. She looks at how interactions between biological communities and nutrient cycling control the quality of soils and water as well as atmospheric emissions to affect the climate system.

Turetsky is available for media interviews.

Prof. Merritt Turetsky