Some climate change science

This past weekend the wife and I got a chance to hear a talk at the North House Folk School about climate change. The speakers were Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner of Minnesota Public Radio, Dr. Jay Austin of the Large Lakes Observatory and Dr. Lee Froelich of the U of MN Center for Forest Ecology. The topic was specifically about how a warming earth will affect northern Minnesota, specifically the forests and lakes.

The evening started out with each presenter giving a 20 minute presentation, and then there was time for Q&A. Each of the speakers was fascinating, and I came away armed with a TON more knowledge about how climate change is affecting our world. In particular I learned that Minnesota (and Canada) is in a unique place for climate change events. Because the warming is happening faster at the north pole, those of us in northern climates are experiencing changes more rapidly than the southern USA.

Additionally, Minnesota sits in a unique place ecologically, with three biomes that touch each other, but aren’t separated by mountains or oceans. It allows scientists to study how even 1-2 degree changes in average temperature can affect forest interaction with each other. As the earth warms it means that certain species of trees will thrive, while others will decline. This has a real impact on the north woods of Minnesota, as most of the pine trees around here cannot deal with hotter temps, and longer growing seasons. They are simply not designed for it.

We’re already starting to see more encroachment of species such as varieties of maple and oak trees, and the decline of traditional northern trees like spruce and fir. Because these new trees have already started to show themselves in the undergrowth, a large wind event that causes a blowdown of a large amount of tall pine trees could trigger a rapid change in the landscape from pine forest to maple. The way things are heading, the Boundary Waters could end up being more of an oak savana than a boreal forest in the next 70 years.

The small change in average temps is also causing instability in ice cover on lakes, and even on Lake Superior. We’ve had years with massive ice covers, and then other years with almost none. The difference between a ice covered lake, and not, can often be 1 degree celsius over the winter.

One other major change that is heading our way is more bugs and pests. We’re averaging many more weeks of mosquito season than in the past. Also, when we have winters that do NOT get to -40, we don’t get a full die-off of various invasive insects that can then wreak havoc in the forests. All of this means that in the next 70 years, northern Minnesota will probably look a lot different than what it does now. How much different depends on if we continue to try and slow warming temps, as proposed under the Paris Accord. I am hopeful that despite our leadership in Washington choosing to pull out of this agreement, that states like Minnesota will continue to pursue efforts to slow our changing landscape.

One fact I want to share (in the graph below), is to acknowledge that YES the earth’s climate does change on it’s own. We can tell by measuring CO2 levels in ice core samples from thousands of years ago. We see this cycle over and over again throughout earth’s history, but what is different now is how rapidly, and drastically, humankind’s impact is affecting the environment. In the past 100 years we’ve raised CO2 levels to points unheard of in 400,000 years. That’s where we need to acknowledge our responsibilities as stewards of creation and take a hard look at what type of planet we want in the future.

24_co2-graph-021116-768px.jpg
Source: NASA: The relentless rise of carbon dioxide

This has all got me thinking about how I can reduce my own carbon emissions, perhaps by biking to work or using transit more. I also might start investigating the possibility of solar panels for the house to help offset other energy use. If everyone does a little bit, it all adds up to a much more positive future. There is no doubt that the world will look different for our grandchildren. How different is up to us.

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