Plantings anticipate climate change

Published 9:31 am Wednesday, July 10, 2013

IN THE SUPERIOR NATIONAL FOREST — A team of researchers will be planting thousands of red oak trees in northern Minnesota over the next two years in an experiment designed to help the north woods adapt to future climate change.

Researchers fear that as winters become warmer the boreal forest could decline, and they are predicting that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness could look more like southern Minnesota or Iowa by the end of the century.

Researchers hope planting the red oak trees outside their current range can ensure that the forest can continue to provide clean water, wildlife habitat, wood products and recreational opportunities.

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The experiment is being led by the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group. Mark White, a forest ecologist for the group, said that over the next few years, the team will measure the growth of the red oaks and share results with natural resource managers.

“If we just let things go, there’s the possibility they’ll start to lose those functions as we have these boreal species decreasing and we don’t have other things that can take their place,” White said. “We’re in danger of losing some of those things that we value from forests.”

The Department of Natural Resources, which has been factoring climate change into its forest planning, will watch the Nature Conservancy experiment with great interest, said DNR forester Paul Dubuque. He said the DNR tries to manage forests for a mixed composition, to make them more resilient to climate changes.

Dubuque’s team has a list of 40 different strategies to deal with climate change, which will be presented to foresters this summer. Team members say a greater variety of trees will help create a healthy forest.

While it may be hard to picture a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that looks like southern Minnesota, such changes are part of nature, said Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology. He said over thousands of years the boreal forest has moved from Hudson’s Bay to Tennessee and back a dozen times.

“It resides in Minnesota for a few thousand years each way as it migrates north and south, and we take that to be normal,” he said. “But actually northern Minnesota has been under a mile of ice much more often than it’s had boreal forest. It’s also had prairie. So this has happened before and it will happen again.”

But now, the speed of the changes and the frequency of extreme weather events are causing concern. Frelich said cutting carbon emissions will help reduce the degree of climate change.