BIOCRACY: Hornby Island and Climate Change

By Anthony Gregson
The Islands Grapevine, June 7, 2018

Where climate change is concerned, it’s not news that we’re all in for it. Yet, somewhat shamefacedly, I came away from Dr. Richard Hebda’s lecture on Hornby Island and climate change, last Friday, sponsored by the Natural History Centre, with a rather cheerful anticipation. Garry Oak meadows all up the East Coast of Vancouver Island? Fields of beautiful blue camas? Lemon trees and oranges, maybe even avocados and sugarcane in the garden? The wines will be terrific. Look forward to Chateau St. John or Domaine Prince George. What’s not to like?

Hebda, who is based in the Royal British Columbia Museum, left us in no doubt about the reality of global warning. He pointed out that the world’s temperature, which normally moves in lock step with carbon dioxide levels, is now way out of wack, far below where carbon dioxide levels have soared. There is no doubt that temperature will catch up. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Obviously, we must find a way to live in harmony with Nature. Hebda used a somewhat stronger term, biocracy, which might be taken to mean the regulation of society in the interests of harmony with Nature. He said that, for him, what were Gaian beliefs in the eighties have been replaced by facts. For example, all communities of perennial plants are connected through fungal mycorrhizal relationships. (The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the biosphere forms a complex system that interacts with inorganic surroundings, such as global temperature, to maintain life.)

The talk concerned the coming changes, looking ahead to 2080, based on what we know of British Columbia’s ecological history, and current trends. Why that year? Hebda produced a cross section of a tree that died 4000 years ago, and toppled into a lake where it was pickled. Growth rings indicate a major climate change that took place in just three years. The archaeological record suggests that the climate can flip in as little as a decade. A lot of the megafauna, such as the Short-faced Bear and the Giant Sloth that used to roam Vancouver Island 12,000 years ago, disappeared rapidly, largely because they were unable to adapt to sudden climate change. When, or just how these changes are triggered, nobody is yet able to predict. But given current statistical trends, we will be living in a markedly changed environment by 2080, no matter what. May temperatures have risen 5 degrees C since 2010 in the Comox Valley, the highest recorded.

The fact is, Vancouver Island is no stranger to major climate change. About 14,000 years ago, as the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated, pine was the main forest cover. With further warming and dryness, garry oak meadows took over the east coast (including Hornby and Denman), and fir forests appeared. Then, as it grew cooler and wetter, cedar became a predominant species. Now, trends are reversing. Red cedar is starting to die out where it is not growing next to abundant water, such as on the edge of a swamp. Don’t let anyone sell you cedar hedging anymore, Hebda warned, it can’t handle the growing drought. Even firs, growing on rock or in shallow pockets of soil, are starting to die.

There is much about efforts to prevent or slow climate change, but Hebda doesn’t think anything much is being done about planning for its inevitability, except at the community level. Even Hornby, where the Helliwell Park Garry Oak meadow restoration project is underway, does not really have a plan that takes a long-term view of the big picture, including sea rise, drought, and extreme events. The time for biocracy (and biocrats?) has arrived.

One of the ways to prepare for change is to do all we can to conserve and encourage the native ecology. It is out of that diversity that the flora and fauna most capable of adapting to warmer, drier conditions are most likely to emerge (for instance, drought-loving plants like Ocean Spray, or the Seaside Juniper). Establish garry oak in clearings rather then let them in-fill with more vulnerable conifers, and encourage arbutus. The removal of broom and other invasives that reduce diversity is essential. Already experiments are underway to test the migration of trees where their natural habitat will extend north. One of them is the Oregon Ash, a tree that is native to BC but has not thrived, requiring more warmth. Whatever we do, be scientific and “monitor, monitor, monitor”.

The idea of encouraging native species extends even to vegetables. Hebda has been involved in the identification of two potatoes that are native to BC and are not related to any current variety. The first of these is the Ozette-Nootka potato, which was apparently introduced by the Spaniards in 1791 directly from South America (as opposed to Europe from which our current varieties emerged) and was subsequently grown by First Nations. The Ozette has tested as the most prolific of heritage varieties, and one of the most resilient. The other is the Likely potato, discovered in the Chilcotin by the community of that name. It is thought that this potato was introduced by Russian fur traders and is able to withstand freezing in the ground. Hebden brought along a box of each and offered them to the audience. You can find out more about them at

Somewhat more surprising was the recommendation to thin out crowded stands of fir. The forests of the Northern Hemisphere, Hebda pointed out, account for 8 to 10 percent of carbon sequestration. Their importance cannot be underestimated. Nowhere are they more efficient than in British Columbia where the most effective trees are big firs about 250 years old. One of these trees is equal to a grove of much younger trees of, say, 50 years old which should be thinned out to encourage larger individuals, and big trees preserved wherever possible.

Extreme events are another concern. Their increasing frequency is startling. Hebda pointed out that sixty years ago, their likelihood was 1:15,187; today it is 1:14. Fire is a real danger of which everyone on the Islands is aware. He recommended the dispersal or removal of ground fuel, and the planting deciduous trees to mitigate the danger of crowning in the event of a fire.

Reduced to only one percent of its native habitat in BC, I used to think of garry oaks as heritage planting, the restoration of a bull-dozed beauty. People often wondered, why bother when you would never live to see them reach maturity. They may be right, but not for the reasons they think. The unpredictability of catastrophic change, and the devastating impact of massive disruptions, puts all our lives in play. Planting a garry oak is no longer simply an act of rescue, but a necessary anticipation of the future.

Thank you to The Island’s Grapevine and Anthony Gregson for covering the event and the permission to reprint this article.

Photo of Garry Oak tree by barb biagi.

Read more about the talk here.

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