A search is underway at UBC for tree seedlings with the DNA to thrive under rapidly changing conditions, with the aim of better preparing B.C.’s forests to withstand climate change.

B.C. experienced the driest summer on record this year, and experts say loose soil and brittle root systems may have contributed to the tree wreckage that destroyed homes, crushed cars and toppled power lines throughout the province during the weekend windstorm.

But the drought is just one of many recent and unusual events tied to climate change that is challenging the health of our forests, said Sally Aitken, professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at UBC.

Change outpaces adaptation

Aitken said researchers have recently witnessed a resurgence in the mountain pine beetle, spruce beetle, drought dieback and other tree diseases.

While Aitken admits it’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause behind each individual event, the rate at which these stressors are appearing is outpacing our forests’ ability to adapt.

“As climate changes, we see a mismatch developing between the local populations of trees and the new climates that they’re experiencing,” she said.

“To adapt, trees have to die, and other trees have to survive.

“For a tree that lives for 100 or 200 years, it’s a very rapid rate of change per generation.”

Seeking diversity

In B.C., roughly 250 million trees are planted per year. While reforestation efforts have traditionally planted local seeds, Aitken said officials are now re-evaluating that strategy.

The UBC AdapTree project is studying the tree genomes of species from California through to Yukon in an effort to match DNA sequences with the performance of seedlings and their drought-stress, cold-stress and heat-stress tolerance.

“We don’t have to generate new strains of trees. We can look to other geographic areas for seed sources,” said Aitken.

Aitken said it’s important to incorporate genetic variation and diversity in our forests, because it’s nearly impossible to predict what changes will come in the future.