Why is global warming so important?
If we keep at our current rate of burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, research suggests the boreal forests of Minnesota will not survive and there will be a +300-mile shift northward of the coniferous and deciduous species we prize here, according to Lee Frelich, PhD, the guest speaker for UMRA's October 2021 Forum.
Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, began his presentation by acknowledging the scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries who pioneered the science of climate change, including the first projections, published in 1896, of the likely impact on earth’s temperatures from our release of CO2. We have known for a long time about this pending disaster.
Why is global warming so important? We already know that massive extinctions in the past have occurred because of rapid climate change—due to widespread volcanic eruptions, for example. The rapid changes that we are seeing now due to human activity are expected to have a similar effect on extinctions of plant and animal species including, potentially, our own. Of the four most important causes of a tipping point in Earth’s climate, Frelich said, one of them is the loss of the boreal and Amazonian forests that is compounding massive and rapid releases of CO2.
Frelich presented a range of possible scenarios for change to the Minnesota forest landscape. If humans take rapid and effective action now to lower emissions, by the end of the century we can expect mean low summer temperatures to be roughly +5 degrees Fahrenheit above what we have presently—meaning, that our biome would change to resemble what Des Moines is today. That’s the best outcome, due to the climate change that is already irreversible.
If we keep to the current trends in emissions, unmitigated by responsible action, Minnesota’s mean low summer nighttime temperatures will be approximately +13 degrees Fahrenheit higher than what we have now, making Minnesota’s biome resemble that of Manhattan, Kansas. At that temperature range, most trees would not survive here, and Minnesota would become, at best, a grassland habitat, causing great disruptions throughout the ecological system.
Not everyone wants to hear Frelich’s warnings. He said he received a lot of blowback from his comments when he was featured in a 2020 Washington Post story about Minnesota’s forests.
What can we do for the benefit of our grandchildren and others who come after us? First, Frelich said, is to support individual, local, national, and international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. Next, is to replace the 2.2 billion acres of trees on our planet that have already been deforested by human activity. An initiative called the Trillion Trees project is organizing to do this on an international scale.
An example of local people taking focused action toward this goal is Green Again Madagascar, based in St. Paul, with partners at a university in Madagascar and Malagasy villagers native to the island country.
—Jan Morlock, UMRA president
Could climate change turn Minnesota into the new Kansas?
Tue, October 26 2021, 12pm
Lee Frelich, PhD
Director, Center for Forest Ecology
University of Minnesota
Event to be held via Zoom.
The impact of unchecked climate change on Minnesota’s forests will be the topic for discussion when Lee Frelich, PhD, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, joins us for our October 26 UMRA Forum.
Please register for this Zoom webinar starting at 12 noon.
Minnesota’s forests and wetlands are a huge part of our identity as a place in the United States. Back in 1978, I came to live in Minnesota, partly because of the romantic idea and the real experience of the forests — moose and lynx lived here! This past summer, a patchwork of wildfires that burned more than 26,000 acres of forest and closed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to visitors got our attention as a sudden, dramatic reminder of climate change. But there are other, longer-term impacts that are changing Minnesota’s forests inexorably that Frelich and other scientists are helping us to understand.
As Frelich explains it, Minnesota is one of the most interesting places on the planet, because three biomes come together here: boreal forest (conifers such as spruce, fir, and pine, mixed with deciduous birch and aspen), temperate forest (maple, oak, and basswood), and grasslands. This confluence of biomes makes Minnesota a unique place; however, it also means that our forests are near the edge of their climatic tolerances and are highly susceptible to changing climate.
A warming climate is expected to allow temperate forests to replace boreal forests of northern Minnesota; and if the climate also becomes drier, then grasslands could replace any type of forest. Several other factors associated with climate change, including forest fires, windstorms, and insect infestations, can also accelerate changes caused by the direct impacts of a warming climate.
Dramatically different alternatives
According to Frelich, future scenarios for reduced versus current carbondioxide emissions would lead to dramatically different alternatives for forests. For the reduced emissions scenario, the distribution of biomes in Minnesota would change only slightly from what we have today, while the current trend for carbon dioxide emissions could turn Minnesota into “the new Kansas,” with climates that support grasslands in most of the state and temperate forests in the northeastern corner.
Frelich received a PhD in forest ecology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1986. He has authored more than 195 publications with 290 coauthors from 25 countries, including major works for Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. He is listed among the top one percent of all scientists in the world in the Ecology and Environment category by the Web of Science, and his research has been featured in the news media more than 500 times, including The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. Frelich has provided consulting services on forest management for the U.S. Army, Air Force, National Forest Service, and National Park Service. His current research interests include large-scale fire and wind, earthworm invasion, and climate change in temperate and boreal forests.
What will the scenario be for our beloved forests, in our lifetimes and those of our grandchildren? Minnesota is fortunate to have Lee Frelich to help us understand the consequences of climate change and make policy choices.
—Jan Morlock, UMRA president
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