Is Canada ready for alien invaders?

picture of the Gypsy Moth

Invasive alien species are on the move in response to a warming climate, but Canadian policies designed to manage the problem rarely consider how climate change is ratcheting up the risk, according to York University research published in the journal Environmental Reviews.

“The interactive effects of climate change and invasive species are expected to have profound consequences for environments, economies and societies worldwide, says lead author Andrea Smith. “For example, many new infectious diseases will likely spread to the Arctic, and coordinated circumpolar disease monitoring and targeted healthcare Andrea Smithplanning will be needed to handle this new pressure. Yet, these two drivers of global change are rarely considered jointly in policy and management initiatives.”

Andrea Smith

Smith, now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at York University, conducted the research review while a senior fellow at York’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). She and eight York University co-authors in fields ranging from science to law and social science to business, reviewed published research on invasive species that were shifting distributions under climate change to identify gaps in knowledge and research in Canada.

Their comprehensive, interdisciplinary review, published Jan. 19, finds that research has tended to focus on predictions of how climate change will affect the distribution of existing invasive species in Canada (including mountain pine beetle, gypsy moth, smallmouth bass and Lyme Disease), rather than on potential invasive species that might expand their range into Canada. Existing research also tends to ignore the socio-economic dimensions of the problem, they found.

There are barriers to predicting changes in the invasive species’ range under climate change, including the complexity of the issue, lack of ecological data, and failure to address the interactions between climate change and invasive species in research and policy. However, scientific knowledge about the impact of climate change on invasive species is growing, Smith says, and can be used as the foundation for policy development.

“This is just another example of how climate change is a big threat multiplier,” says John P. Smol, editor of Environmental Reviews and a professor at Queen’s University where he also holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change. “We simply have not even begun to understand all the negative repercussions of this problem.” This synthesis is the first to characterize the current state of knowledge on this critical issue in Canada.

Smith is now conducting a legislative review of invasive species policy in Canada, for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network.

Co-authors on the Environmental Reviews article are Professor Nina Hewitt (IRIS Senior Fellow and York University Department of Geography), Nicole Klenk (IRIS Senior Fellow), Professor Dawn Bazely (IRIS Director and York Department of Biology), Professor Norman Yan (IRIS Core Faculty, York Department of Biology, and Dorset Environmental Science Centre), Professor Stepan Wood (IRIS Acting Director and Osgoode Hall Law School), Professor James MacLellan (IRIS Senior Fellow and York Faculty of Environmental Studies), Professor Carla Lipsig-Mummé (Director of IRIS−affiliated Work in a Warming World program and York Department of Social Science), and Professor Irene Henriques (IRIS Core Faculty member and Schulich School of Business).

The IRIS research team received funding from the Canadian Foundation for Climate & Atmospheric Sciences, an independent funding body dedicated to supporting research that improves our understanding of climate change impacts on health, safety, economy and environment.

Environmental Reviews, published by NRC Research Press, is an electronic-only quarterly review journal that covers a wide range of important environmental issues, including climate change.