Climate change

WCS Canada uses cutting-edge science to understand the impacts of climate change on wildlife and natural resources, plan conservation for a rapidly changing world, and implement nature-based solutions to protect ecosystems and storing carbon.  In fact, we bring a climate focus to all our efforts to save wildlife and wild places in recognition of the enormous threat that human-driven climate disruption poses to our planet.

Climate change will increasingly become the biggest threat facing wildlife worldwide, both because of its direct impacts and because of the way it builds on other threats, such as habitat loss, to imperil wild species. It is happening faster in Canada than in many other countries – twice as fast as the global average – and within Canada it is happening even faster at northern latitudes. In the Canadian Arctic, temperature records are now being constantly broken and conditions are changing rapidly, with receding sea ice and melting permafrost.

Key to our efforts is driving interest and investment in natural climate solutions, focusing on the proactive protection and “avoided conversion” of carbon-rich areas like forests, wetlands and peatlands -- an essential part of the climate response alongside efforts to curb carbon emissions. Ensuring adequate policy safeguards and financial incentives for protecting these carbon sinks is just as important as reducing human-caused emissions. In fact, these two priorities are different sides of the same coin when it comes to reducing the threat posed by climate change.  

Carbon storage

Canada’s intact boreal forests, wetlands, peatlands and soil store billions of tonnes of carbon. Boreal forest ecosystems hold almost twice as much carbon per unit area as tropical forests and, together with wetland ecosystems, are estimated to store more than 200 billion tonnes of carbon in Canada – the equivalent of 26 years of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Canada has 4.3 million km2 of intact forests in the boreal zone -- the second biggest expanse of the remaining large tracts of continuous forests on Earth. Peatlands, meanwhile, comprise 12% of Canada’s land area, with almost all of this area located in boreal ecosystems. These special wetland ecosystems are known to store a huge amount of carbon through the accumulation of thick organic soil layers.

A significant block of intact forest and peatlands is located in Ontario and Québec, almost entirely within areas not currently allocated for forestry. However, the peatlands within these areas are at significant risk from future mining and hydro power development.  Currently, our governments focus less on sustaining the invaluable carbon storage services of these intact areas and more on tree planting and forestry. This must quickly change before irreversible damage is done to globally important carbon storehouses.

We are working to improve land-use planning and impact assessment processes to help ensure they properly value and protect intact forests and wetlands. Because these areas are also First Nations homelands, processes that recognize the cultural and spiritual value of these intact areas must also be developed.

Helping wildlife cope with a changing climate

Our work to help wildlife includes looking ahead to what the likely impacts of climate change will be and at how we can reduce impacts. In the Arctic, for example, we are tracking whale movements to better understand potential conflict between increased ship traffic made possible by longer ice-free periods and marine mammals.  We are using our findings to advocate for measures like shifting shipping routes and reducing ship speeds that our research shows are effective ways to lessen noise pollution, collisions and disturbance. 

In Ontario, we are working to build a picture of future conditions for freshwater fish in the far north of the province, a globally significant intact area dotted with hundreds of lakes and crisscrossed by dozens of rivers inhabited by more than 50 species of fish.  We have mapped out which species in which areas would most likely to be affected by climate impacts like warming waters in an effort to highlight areas that may serve as climate refuges for cold water fish and to point to areas where introducing additional impacts, such as resource development, could severely reduce survival rates for fish when combined with the effects of a changing climate. 

In fact, much of our work to highlight the importance of conserving large, intact wild areas and watersheds  -- from BC’s Muskwa-Kechika to the Yukon’s Peel Watershed – is aimed at ensuring wild species have room to adapt to habitat shifts and other climate impacts.  In the southern Yukon and northern BC, for example, we are looking at how to design conservation and protected area networks on still-wild landscapes before development pressures, and climate impacts, increase.  Similarly, our work on identifying Key Biodiversity Areas across Canada is also an opportunity to identify areas that will be critical for helping wildlife cope with a changing climate.

We know wildlife are already facing rapidly changing conditions with more extreme weather and increasingly intense wildfires, and will be impacted by other major changes, in future.  Our task is both to limit these impacts as much as possible and to take concrete action now to help species survive the changes to come.

Latest News

  • Research from the University of Alberta and WCS Canada finds pockets of Canada's boreal forest that act as "refugia" against climate change (Canadian Geographic).
  • How our freshwater fish and GIS staff teamed up to map key habitats for fish in the far north of Ontario, information that will be valuable for dealing with climate change impacts, explained in Canadian Geographic