Tree populations in northern MN could shift with climate change, study finds

The project is the first of its kind in northern Minnesota.

Danielle Korby

Northern Minnesota forests are home to many trees, like spruces and firs, which may not survive as climate change progresses, according to a University of Minnesota study published last week.

Boreal trees, which currently dominate Minnesota’s northern forests, thrive in cooler climates. And as warmer temperatures encroach on the region, the research, which is a part of a project called B4WarmED, found those trees could be overtaken by other trees, like maples  and oaks, that thrive in warmer climates.

Researchers tested the effect of warmer temperatures on boreal trees along the Canadian border over three years to better understand the potential impact of climate change on northern Minnesota’s tree population.

Peter Reich, the study’s lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Forest Resources, said he began the research because was concerned about the future of Minnesota’s forests.

For the project, researchers used heating lamps to warm the air and specialized underground cables to heat the soil. Those unique methods of regulating the environment’s temperature made the study the first of its kind in northern Minnesota, said Artur Stefanski, a graduate student and B4WarmED research fellow.

Rebecca Montgomery, associate professor in the Forest Resources Department, worked closely with Reich on the study. She said organizations, like the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service, use studies similar the University’s to teach forest managers about planting trees that are most likely to thrive in an area.

Many college students visit the research site annually to learn about B4WarmED, Stefanski said, and some textbooks have started using the project’s findings to teach about the effects of a warming climate.

“We are providing answers for science, for education,” Stefanski said.

Montgomery said people should be conscious of the kinds of trees they plant, adding that some may not live as long in the future as they do now.

And as skepticism surrounding climate change decreases, more people will start paying attention to their impact, she said.

“Now that we’re getting past that skepticism, people are starting to think, ‘Ok, what do we do now?’” Montgomery said.

Tim O’Hara, Vice President of Forest Policy for Minnesota Forest Industries, said he thinks it will be years before the area’s trees will be affected by climate change.