Saving Northern Minnesota’s Forests Through Affirmative Adaptation

Photo: Salwan Georges, The Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on climate change highlighting the places where temperatures have already warmed more than 2 degrees has a new installment, this one focusing on how to retain tree cover in Northern Minnesota so it doesn’t become a prairie, which scientists believe is a real risk.  If Minnesota’s residents want to keep their forests, humans must limit greenhouse gas emissions, but even so, scientists are looking for ways to help the state’s forests adapt by changing them from spruce and fir trees to maples and oaks.

Why This Matters:  Change is inevitable, but climate change is moving so fast that without aggressive action to plant new trees, the risk is that the boreal forest will die and the areas will become an extension of the state’s prairie land unless we do something.  This may mean planting millions of trees of new varieties there.  When faced with the drought-induced dustbowl throughout the plains in which the soil literally blew away, President Roosevelt hired unemployed workers during the Depression to plant 220 million trees.  It helped.  President Trump has also promised to plant a trillion trees.  But will they?

Minnesota Could Be the New Kansas

The Post’s series is obviously excellent.  But what makes it so remarkable is the analysis they did of historical temperature data to figure out what parts of the world are warming fastest — have already reached the seminal 2 degrees warmer.  In the U.S., they found that “seven counties in Minnesota have warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century — about twice the global average. Winters here have warmed even faster, with 59 of the state’s counties — about two thirds — eclipsing the 2C threshold during the months of December through February.”

What makes Minnesota special is the diversity of its landscape — from “boreal forests to the north, with their stately conifers and the moose and lynx that roam them; temperate forests in the middle, dominated by deciduous trees such as oak and maple; and prairie stretching to the south and west.”  Climate change is pushing everything north and experts in the state “have testified about what is in store if temperatures continue to rise: more heat-related deaths, lower crop yields, damaging deluges and floods, a surge in pests, increasing drought and worsening air quality.”  The Director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology told The Post that by 2100, Minnesota could lose its timber and tourism industries that are part of its identity.  “Minnesota could become the new Kansas,” he said. “We have a perfectly good Kansas now. We don’t need a second one in Minnesota.”

Northwoods of the Future

Scientists are already seeing the impact of climate change in the Minnesota boreal forests.  There are larger trees but on the forest floor, no new trees are filling in beneath them.  According to Chris Swanston, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist and director of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, “[t]he forest can’t perpetuate itself the way it once did…Forests are always evolving….It’s just with climate change, things are changing faster and in different ways. We’re having to roll with that change a lot faster and be a much more active part of it.”

To Go Deeper:  Read the entire story in The Post here — it is worth your time.  Read the entire series of stories here.

Graphic: The Washington Post, NOAA Data

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