Rising temperatures threaten Minnesota’s Northwoods


Flickr Creative Commons: Eli Sagor

CLIMATE CRISIS. Deciduous trees encroach into a balsam fir forest in Cloquet, Minnesota while other tree species fail to regenerate. The changing landscape and potential loss of Minnesota’s greenery greatly concerns students. “It’s really disappointing, and I want to think about what I can do more to make sure that doesn’t happen,” junior Anisa Deo said.

Imagine driving up north, and instead of seeing a familiar expanse of green coniferous forest and pristine lakes, the surroundings are nothing but a grassland. This could be the reality if the effects of climate change continue to impact Minnesota at increasing rates. Minnesota is home to four unique ecological biomes; deciduous forest, Aspen parkland, prairie, and the boreal forest, which is made up of conifers– trees that don’t annually lose their leaves. Boreal forests cover 1.2 billion acres across the Northern Hemisphere, making it the largest ecological biome on the planet, and in Minnesota, the biome is lovingly referred to as the Northwoods. These forests hold significantly large biogenic reserves of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. A loss of the biome would result in releases of carbon that would add to the greenhouse gasses that heat the planet.

Minnesota’s Northwoods are populated by firs and pines, which withstand and require freezing temperatures for six to eight months of the year. However, according to recent research, global warming threatens these conditions. Boreal forests are a climate change hotspot, with temperatures rising among the quickest in the nation. The average temperature in this biome has risen two degrees over the last 20 years, which is double the national average– and double that of the Twin Cities, just a couple of hours South.

People need to learn how to take care of [wilderness] and examine how they are contributing to climate change.

— Ingrid Johnson

Leading climate scientists believe Minnesota will lose its Northwoods within the century. According to University of Minnesota climate researcher Lee Frelich, the average Boreal forest temperatures will increase by 13 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, making Northern Minnesota a dry arid grassland resembling Manhattan, Kansas. This situation is modeled on the current unmitigated emissions. With a rapid curb on emissions, Frelich’s research predicts the average Boreal forest temperature will only rise five degrees Fahrenheit. With bold and responsible climate action, our Northwoods could look like the deciduous biome of Des Moines, Iowa. Many members of the SPA community have begun to consider the importance that individual efforts have in helping fight drastic changes to the climate in Minnesota.

“It’s really disappointing, and I want to think about what I can do more to make sure that doesn’t happen,” junior Anisa Deo said of the possible loss of forest. Deo frequently camps with her family up north, and enjoys the peace of mind she finds in the woods.

“It’s nice to be alone” she said, “when I’m outside, I notice more things in nature.”

Changes in the Northwoods aren’t just a future projection, they are currently happening. Deciduous maple and oak trees are encroaching north into historically conifer forests, while coniferous balsams fail to regenerate. Additionally, recent fires in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and surrounding areas have contributed to carbon being released into the atmosphere at increasing rates, which further warms the planet.

Rising temperatures also harm cultures and economies nestled in the Northwoods. The Anishinaabe people migrated to the Upper Midwest after receiving a prophecy to live where “food that grows on water.” Wild rice is that sacred food. The plant is so integral to Anishinaabe culture that it holds legal rights in sovereign Anishinaabe territories and sued Line 3, a crude oil pipeline that ran through its ecosystem. Wild Rice is sustained by low temperatures and can only grow in lakes with a hard winter freeze. Rising temperatures in Boreal forests and extreme weather events associated with climate change deplete wild rice populations across the region. Wisconsin’s Lac du Flambeau reservation’s rice yields dropped from 200 lbs to 80 lbs per family in the last 100 years, and the loss is felt both commercially and culturally.

Recreation is also an integral part of the Northwoods’ economy, and a way many people connect to the area. Junior Ingrid Johnson spends her summers canoeing in the Northwoods of Minnesota and Canada with YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, and is concerned about the state of the environment as well as the impact that climate change will have on the community building opportunities she has grown to love in the area

“A lot of camps and groups go into the Boundary Waters, and I think it’s a good way for people to explore the wilderness. If that deteriorated, it would lessen the opportunity for people to explore the wilderness.” Johnson said.

Though the options presented in Frelich’s research look grim, hope is not lost. The “best-case scenario” projects that a forest biome in Northern Minnesota will be maintained, and boreal forests in colder parts of the world will survive and continue to sequester carbon. Being stewards of the land can prevent further harm to the Northwoods, and ambitious emission cuts can preserve the forests.

“People need to learn how to take care of [wilderness] and examine how they are contributing to climate change,” Johnson said.

The original image can be found at Flickr CC.