Minnesota Scientists Look to Plant a Forest for a New Climate
The landscape of Minnesota is changing as the climate crisis intensifies. Animals and plants that once were only found in the southern part of the state have moved north, suggesting that as the climate changes, Minnesota, by 2100, will start to resemble an environment similar to the one found in Kansas, a few states to the south.
"We have a perfectly good Kansas now. We don't need a second one in Minnesota," said Lee Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology, to The Washington Post. He believes that if the climate crisis goes unchecked, the boreal forests that soak up huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could vanish completely, taking with them a third of the state's native species of trees, flowers, birds and pollinators.
Frelich and a group of scientists are trying to understand exactly how the changing climate will affect Minnesota, what species will thrive, and are starting to plant trees that will one day take the place of the ones native to the state, according to The Washington Post.
Minnesota's remarkable natural landscape, which includes boreal forests to the north, temperate forests in the middle, and prairie stretching to the south and west, has lost a tremendous amount of its biodiversity and wetlands to development, industry, and now a rapidly changing climate.
In the last 150 years, the state has lost 50 percent of its wetlands, 40 percent of its forests and 98 percent of its prairies, according to Hannah Texler, a plant ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who has helped put together a comprehensive survey of the state's biological diversity, as Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported.
"So that just underscores the importance of those areas we do have left," she said to MPR. "It's incumbent on us to make sure that we're taking actions to make sure that those persist into the future."
In the northeast corner of the state, scientists are planting an experimental forest under different climatic conditions. They have built ten, 30-foot tall, open-top chambers. Eight of those chambers are warmed from above and below ground. The other two are controls. Half of the chambers also have elevated levels of carbon dioxide, according to local NBC news affiliate KARE.
"It's the only place on the planet that's simulating climate change to the degree that we think it's [actually] going to happen," said Randy Kolka, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, to KARE. "And it's right here in northern Minnesota."
In the moderate warming scenario, they have already seen effects just a few years into a 10-year experiment. When the climate warms four degrees Fahrenheit, the tamarack trees hold onto their needles much longer. In a more extreme scenario, where the temperature increases 16 degrees, shrubs proliferate, shielding and killing the moss essential to the peatland ecosystem, according to KARE.
"The trees are going downhill fast," Kolka said. "The changes to the plant community are like the canary in the coal mine. Once you start seeing changes to the plant communities, you can expect to see bigger changes up the ecosystem scale."
One of the bolder parts of the experimental forest is the planting of trees that once would not have been found here, but that are expected to flourish in the future that scientists foresee in Minnesota's North Woods.
"The worst-case scenario is if we don't do something like this, we'll have no forest," said Brian Palik, a longtime ecologist with the Forest Service's Northern Research Station, to The Washington Post. "Our broad objective is to look at ways to keep forests on the landscape. It may be a different forest. I like to say that it may not be your grandfather's forest, but it will be your grandchildren's forest."
"It's not that this is going to happen. It's that it's already happening," he added of the changes that the warming climate is bringing to the North Woods. "The time to act is now."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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