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Climate Change in Our Backyard: Prairie Grasslands

Posted on June 29, 2021

It’s such a big thing – climate change. And, from maps of melting glaciers to a growing list of endangered species, the impacts of the crisis can feel large and sometimes far removed.

But, if you look closely, you can see the impacts of the climate crisis right here at FortWhyte Alive, located on Treaty 1 Territory, near the centre of Canada.

The Prairies are recognized as a potential climate change “hotspot.” Warmer summers, drier winters, and wetter springs are all projected and will have large impacts on ecosystems. As the climate becomes more variable and less predictable, the natural environment adapts. One of the most dramatic ways we observe species responding to climate is the timing of different events in nature. 

With warmer spring temperatures: 

  • Boreal frogs are waking from their winter hibernation earlier. 
  • Migratory birds like Canada Geese that closely follow snowmelt lines are arriving sooner. 
  • Plants like Golden Alexanders and Prairie Crocuses, our first signifiers of spring, are blooming ahead of time.

You see, nature adapts all the time. It has to.

And these changes look different in different ecosystems. At FortWhyte Alive, we’re lucky to have representation of four ecosystems: prairie grasslands, wetlands, aspen forests and lakes.

So how does climate change impact each of these ecosystems?

Prairie Grasslands

Tall green grass fills most of the photo with blue sky behind it.

When you think of prairie landscapes, pictures of a big sky and knee-high grasses are probably what come to mind. Grasslands, like other prairie landscapes, are essential ecosystems. They provide habitats for birds, butterflies, insects, and other wildlife. Prairies also contain deep, rich soil and complex plant root systems that can store large amounts of carbon in a natural and effective way. 

Less than 1% of Manitoba’s original 6,000 square kilometers of tallgrass prairie still exist today.

Unfortunately, grasslands are already among the most endangered habitats. Less than 1% of Manitoba’s original 6,000 square kilometers of tallgrass prairie still exist today. 

Drought is a major driver of impacts to grassland and prairie ecosystems and is likely to lead to increased wildfires and loss of wetland habitats – such as prairie potholes that are critical habitats for migratory bird species – as well as species migration and habitat shifts. 

So what can we expect?

  • Increase in the possibility that droughts will be longer and more frequent.
  • Summer storms are likely to be more intense and numerous as temperatures increase, leading to more erosion, stream sedimentation, and potential for flash flooding.
  • A northward shift of the boundary where grassland meets parkland or forest is expected to occur.
  • Greater potential for eutrophication of water bodies as more intense rainfall events results in greater runoff that increases nutrient loads in local water systems.

There’s no doubt that grasslands are important to Manitoba’s ecosystems. We feel fortunate to preserve over a hundred acres of natural grasslands here on the land that we steward and contribute to a healthier environment. 

2020 Controlled Burn

Last year, we conducted a controlled burn on the north half of our prairie grassland. Controlled burning, also known as prescribed burning, involves setting planned fires to maintain the health of an ecosystem.

They can help by ridding grasslands of invasive species, encouraging the growth of native plant species, and further sequestering nitrogen and carbon into the soil.

Controlled burning, also known as prescribed burning, involves setting planned fires to maintain the health of an ecosystem.

Grass responds very well to fire, it grows mostly from the bottom of the shoot. Prescribed fire is hot enough to remove the dead vegetation and if timed correctly, it does not harm the growth areas of the grass.

It returns nutrients to the soil in the ashes of vegetation that could otherwise take years to decompose. And after a fire, the additional sunlight and open space in a forest can help young trees and other plants start to grow.

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The Climate Change in our Backyard series highlights the climate change impacts on the different ecosystems that can be found at FortWhyte Alive.

Check back as we highlight impacts on Aspen Forests and Freshwater Lakes in the coming months. 

For resources and to see what we’re doing to mitigate climate change, check out our Sustainability page