Climate change vulnerability assessment sheds light on future of boreal forest

Date Posted

forest area in northern saskatchewan

This is a contributed post written by former SRC employee Mark Johnston.

Climate change is affecting Canada’s forests to a greater extent than other parts of the globe. Why Canada? Well, there are many factors at play unique to our environment. For example, loss of snow and sea ice in the Arctic is reducing the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface, which is increasing the absorption of solar radiation. This causes larger surface warming than in more southerly regions. 

In addition, Canada is receiving heat energy from more southerly latitudes and, as a result of this and other mechanisms, is warming faster than the world as a whole—at more than twice the global rate—and the Canadian Arctic is warming even faster, at about three times the global rate. 

Extensive forest fires, insect outbreaks and drought have all affected Canadian forests in the past decade, and these disturbances appear to be increasing. A climate change vulnerability assessment is currently underway in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The goal of the assessment is to shed light on what to expect in the future as climate change increasingly affects the boreal forest

Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Project

The project is a partnership that includes SRC, four forestry companies (two in SK and two in MB) and the two provincial governments. Data on climate and disturbance is being provided by the Canadian Forest Service. The University of British Columbia is providing some addition research exploring the economic benefits to climate change adaptation. The project is funded by Natural Resources Canada’s Climate Change Adaptation Program with significant in-kind support from the partner organizations.

In the assessment, SRC is working closely with the project partners to help them understand first, what will climate change look like on their landscape, and second, what options may help them reduce the impacts of climate change within the constraints of available human and financial resources. 

Past experience with this approach has shown that it is essential to have strong engagement by the organization, as they bring knowledge of the local landscape, local management practices and the local policy environment. We’ve seen that in addition to helping companies understand climate change, it also provides an opportunity to review management objectives and how their decision-making system works. 

Climate change assessments have been carried out in Europe and in some places in Canada, but these early efforts were ad hoc and didn’t use the structured framework that has been applied in this project. The framework was developed under the auspices of the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers and is designed to apply to Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) as practiced in Canada. 

what does a vulnerability assessment include?

Our vulnerability approach is based on one developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the mid-2000s. It includes three components:

  • Exposure - refers to short-term climate variability and long-term change
  • Sensitivity - the characteristics of the system of interest and how it is affected by Exposure
  • Adaptive Capacity - the ability of the organization (e.g., company or government) to implement adaptations that may reduce the extent of climate change impacts

The vulnerability assessment is made up of several phases:

Organizational Readiness

We all want to prevent damage (economically, environmentally and socially) caused by climate events, such as forest fires, drought and hail. We want to be better prepared for the next event, to know what our weaknesses are and what can be done to mitigate them. 

This is why organizations want vulnerability assessments. But one thing we must consider is, does the organization have the financial and human resources required to do the assessment? And not only that, is the organization’s management supportive of doing the assessment? Because even if we want to do something, are we ready to do it? 

Pre-vulnerability Analysis

It’s important to set the context of the environment in which the organization operates in, such as data availability and knowledge of relevant legislation and regulations. This component of the assessment involves reviewing how past climate events have affected the organization’s operations and what was done to reduce these impacts.

We then review what is known about future climate conditions and how climate change impacts might change in the future. 

Assessing Vulnerability

The next stage is determining the organization’s current vulnerability. We bring all the climate change information together with the company’s operations and develop scenarios of how those operations may be affected. 

The assessment is tailored to each of the organizations’ management objectives. In Canadian SFM, these usually fall into several categories such as maintaining forest health, providing for biodiversity and habitat, sequestering carbon and generating economic benefits for stakeholders. 

Identify and Evaluate Adaptation Options

We then identify some actions or changes in practice that could reduce the impacts of climate change and evaluate them based on the organization’s needs. The options are also linked directly to the organization’s management objectives. 

For example, one of the main objectives in SFM is to get a steady supply of wood to the mill. We are already seeing problems in wood deliveries related to road washouts and lack of frozen soil for winter harvesting. Companies are now starting to stockpile wood in accessible areas to ensure a reliable supply for the mill. 


Once we’ve determined which adaptation options are feasible, we provide guidance on how the options can be implemented, how to monitor their effectiveness and how to incorporate this information into day-to-day business planning and decision making.  We rely on strong guidance from the companies in defining what is realistic, both technically and financially. 

The companies and governments we have worked with are extremely engaged with this process and appreciate the emphasis on local conditions – it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach but rather one that is tailored to every organization’s individual circumstances. We are now exploring how to apply the assessment framework to other resource industries, especially the oil and gas and mining sectors.

Assessing climate change vulnerability and developing adaptation options will allow companies to continue to deliver SFM in a changing environment and provide benefits to the people of Canada.