Climate Change Migrants: Oaks, Maples, Pine.
May 20, 2020 2:37 PM   Subscribe

An eye-opening article in the Washington Post tracks a bold experiment unfolding in Minnesota, where scientists are giving forests a head-start to help them outrun climate change.

They’re doing this by changing the makeup of the state’s forests through “assisted migration,” transplanting southern Minnesota’s sun-loving deciduous trees into its northern boreal forests. Essentially, they’re staging a process they believe will happen naturally in the future, as warmer-weather trees begin sprouting further north. The goal is to help these northern forests adapt to climate change gradually, tree by tree, and avoid becoming “zombie forests” that can’t regenerate in a warmer climate. “We’re trying to create, in an ecologically realistic way, the climate of the future,” said one biologist.
posted by Gray Duck (10 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Archived version
posted by Brian B. at 3:58 PM on May 20

Over 20 years ago I met someone at a RI Wild Plant Society meeting who said we should be planting species from south of our area to help them move with global warming. She said that the vast metropolitan area to the south might block the migration and lead to their extinction. She was certainly prescient.
North America is generally better suited to north/south migration of plants and animals as the main mountain ranges run north/south. In Europe where they run east/west they prevent this as species can't make it through the high altitude zones.
Thank you for the post which points out that even here natural migration might not be fast enough
posted by Botanizer at 4:12 PM on May 20 [5 favorites]

We could use some help in southern MN as our forests get obliterated by buckthorn and garlic mustard.
posted by Ferreous at 4:58 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

Reading this was like taking a trip back to the late 1990s for me. I knew a lot of the people in the article from grad school at UMinn, and it's good see they're still doing good work. I'd like to see more work being done trying to figure out how we salvage what we can of existing ecological communities in the face of climate change across the board, not to mention agricultural systems.
posted by mollweide at 5:52 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]

I grew up in Minnesota, and have distinct memories from childhood of secretly wishing for deep cold snaps in winter specifically because I knew that it’s supposed to be that cold - it needs to be that cold - in order for the northern forests and the animals that live there to survive. Obviously it’s increasingly not cold enough and me just wishing for it isn’t going to help, but these days every time there’s news about the polar vortex I still do a little mental fist pump.

My grandparents, who went on a canoe expedition for their honeymoon in the Boundary Waters in the 1940s before it was a federally-protected Wilderness Area, are painfully aware of how things have been changing in that landscape. They remember seeing woodland caribou in northern Minnesota when they were kids in the 1930s. Big forest fires didn't used to be so frequent and powerful summer thunderstorms like the one that caused the 1999 blowdown were unheard of in that part of the state. And when they are shown recent photos from Boundary Waters trips taken by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they can't help but notice that so many of the grand old white pines that used to tower over their favorite campsites are disappearing.
posted by theory at 7:19 PM on May 20 [9 favorites]

Thanks so much for posting this article, Gray Duck! I’ve been following this project for a couple years and loved the photography. My awareness of the northward tree migration started when I started researching ash tree replacements for my Minneapolis yard (RIP, 5 ash trees, and good riddance to the Norway maple that also bit the dust). I talked to the city forester a couple times, and it’s such a hard thing to try to maintain a city tree canopy in the face of climate change, urban street flooding, invasive species, lean city budgets, and homeowners who can’t be bothered to water their new boulevard trees. We ended up with a bunch of different trees because fuck those foresters in the 1960s who decided to replace the Dutch elm disease infected trees with a shit ton of ash trees. Every time my neighbor sees my redbud tree she comments, “State tree of Oklahoma!” so we’ll see what happens.
posted by Maarika at 7:59 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]

Recently I've been doing a lot of local hiking in the open spaces near where I live in Oakland, California. I've had a lot of occasion to wonder about the mix of trees I encounter on the trails in one particular park: stands of what I believe are second growth redwood (conifers) and areas dominated by live oak/manzanita/bay laurel (deciduous hardwoods). Am I looking at something steady state (like adjacent micro climates) or is one type of tree slowly taking over the other in a general response to the macro climate in this part of the state.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 10:16 PM on May 20

Related, from the new issue of Harper's: Ground Control: How Forests Adapt to Climate Change.

The last paragraph is going to stick with me:

It makes for a strange kind of grief—mourning change in a place that has always changed. The forest seems to ask for stoicism, for us to accept that the hemlocks have left us before and they may leave us again. But fossil fuel emissions have accelerated this transformation, forcing us to bear witness to changes that once were too slow for humans to see, and prompting others that might never have occurred. Perhaps the grief I feel is the sensation of time passing too quickly, the feeling that we are losing things that should have lasted longer.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:41 AM on May 21 [3 favorites]

The thought of my beloved northwoods without pine trees makes me feel like I've been punched in the gut. It is definitely grief that I am feeling. Am I part of the last generation to experience the coolness of fresh pine in the winter and the headiness of hot pine in the summer? What will become of the boreal creatures that make evergreens their home?

I think that having a denuded, dying boreal forest would be more painful than watching a evergreen-deciduous handoff. I think it's a good, pragmatic thing that the U of MN is doing. But oh, we are going to lose so much.
posted by Gray Duck at 7:52 AM on May 21 [4 favorites]

The Earth will do **just** fine.

Individual species especially humanity, will suffer from the transitions, true, but adaptation ensures "life will find a way".
posted by goinWhereTheClimateSuitsMyClothes at 6:29 PM on May 21

« Older My Eyes! - The Nightmare - My Eyes!   |   The mysterious desert dwellers Newer »

You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.