In fast-warming Minnesota, scientists are trying to plant the forests of the future
The Washington Post Democracy Dies in Darkness
MINNESOTA — Almost everywhere he looks, Lee Frelich sees the fingerprints of climate change on the forests he has studied since he was a boy half a century ago.
Birds from southern Minnesota are now popping up far north in Ely, on the edge of the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Splashes of red maple leaves are now visible each fall amid the pines and spruces of the iconic North Woods, where they once would have been harder to find.
Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, thinks that if the state’s warming trend remains unchecked, such subtle changes will become starker and more devastating in the decades ahead. He thinks the boreal forests that soak up huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could disappear entirely, taking with them a third of the state’s native species of trees, flowers, birds and pollinators.
In an extreme scenario, he has warned, prairie land could expand across much of Minnesota by 2100, upending everything from the timber industry to tourism to the state’s very 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.”
Frelich is among a small army of scientists working to understand the subtle but unmistakable shifts that are unfolding in one of the nation’s fastest-warming states — shifts that he and others say will become more profound and troubling in the hotter future that lies ahead.
They are running ambitious experiments that simulate rising temperatures with heat lamps and underground wires, use computer models to decipher where certain species might thrive and involve planting trees from as far away as South Dakota that might one day take the place of native species stressed by heat.
A Washington Post analysis of historical temperature data 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.
Minnesota is home to a landscape like none other in the United States. It has the 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.
But rising temperatures are altering those boundaries.
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.
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