Using photos from the nineteenth century and enlisting the help of nature photographers and explorers to capture current versions of the historic photo collection, University of Waterloo professor Andrew Trant and his team were able to identify the dramatic change by tracking treelines and tree density.

“We found that the Canadian Rocky Mountains have undergone a dramatic shift over the past century. By comparing the photographs from the late 1800s to ones taken today, we found widespread evidence of ecosystem change by tracking treeline advance and increases in tree density,” said Trant. “Working as an ecologist, this analysis is invaluable for providing conservation targets and measuring ecosystem disturbances from climate change.”


side-by-side Rocky Mountains

side-by-side photos of the Rocky Mountains

side-by-side photos of the Rocky Mountains

Trant’s team examined 197km of mountain habitat over 5 degrees of latitude and an average time-lapse of 94 years. They looked at 104 specific sites and found that 90 of them showed treeline advance and 93 showed an increase in tree density. 

“These results show just how quickly and drastically our ecosystems are changing in Canada,” said Trant. “This work shows the value of historic references, which are invaluable for our understanding of ecological change over time, particularly in mountain ecosystems, which are sentinels of change.”

The study, A century of high elevation ecosystem change in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, was published in the June 2020 edition of Scientific Reports.

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