By Jean Pengra
Communications intern for MN350

The impacts of climate change are far from consistent across different regions of the world. The Arctic, for example, is warming two times faster than the rest of the globe due to the intensity of climate feedback loops such as ice sheet loss and permafrost melt. Distinct ocean hot spots are causing massive sea life die-offs off the coasts of Uruguay and Argentina. 

Even within the United States, we see drastic differences. The American Southwest will likely have more frequent and severe droughts, while the Northeast will experience increased flooding. But how will it impact the land of 10,000 lakes? 

As it turns out, Minnesota, especially Northern Minnesota, will see disproportionate amounts of heat and precipitation. This puts the treasured and diverse ecosystems we know and love, such as the Boundary Waters and bog mires, at immediate risk.

Higher temperature extremes

Image: Wilderness Society.

Minnesota is at the epicenter of predicted temperature increases for the United States. In all climate change scenarios, even those assuming we will meet ambitious emission reduction goals, experts predict a future of disproportionately higher temperatures for Minnesota. This is especially true within the Northwoods region.

However, these estimates are based on yearly averages. Seasonality matters. While summers will get hotter on average, the most extreme differences will be warmer winters. As nice as that sounds to you and I, this is bad news for the Northwoods. Lakes will freeze later, and thaw sooner. More time for spring growth brings increased pests, parasites, and risk for algal blooms. Classic Minnesotan species like Loons and Moose will start to disappear or move north.

Increased extreme precipitation and other weather events

Did you know that 2019 is on track to be the wettest year on record for Minnesota? And for the entire US? While average rainfall amounts are definentally higher, the most harmful difference might be a change in rainfall intensity. The Midwest has already observed a 37% increase in extreme downpours from 1958 to 2012. 

Most of us are no stranger to the consequences of extreme floods, such  as those along the Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas rivers last spring. Severe flooding can cause property damage, increased disease transmission, mudslides, and exposing of buried toxins

But on top of this, increased rainfall in the form of heavy downpour may actually decrease functional water availability. Even if a season has a large amount of rain, having it come all at once risks loss to runoff that plants and soils can’t soak up in a short amount of time. It also allows for increased opportunities for interm droughts. This risk only increases with higher global temperatures.

As a rule of thumb, know that extreme weather events will be much more common and much more polarized, a phenomenon called weather whiplash. Remember the Polar vortex of 2019?  We will surely see more like it within the next decade. 

What does this mean for the Northwoods?

The Northwoods are moving…well, more north. Although much of the recent press around the boundary waters has been about the great work by Save the Boundary Waters who are working keep heavy metal pollution out of the complex lake system, climate change also will bring major risks for the region. It will also have extreme consequences for one of the most carbon-rich features of the landscape: peat bogs.

Ecosystem-level migration

Image: American Rivers/Jim Brandenburg.

Our climate is changing far faster than natural selection can account for. As entire ecosystems try to adapt in any way that they can, this can mean physically moving toward more familiar conditions. This is why the loons and moose may disappear. As immovable as they seem, entire forest stands may also slowly shift further north.

While Minnesota is lucky to hold so many wonderful and vastly different ecosystems such as temperate forests, prairies, oak savannas, and boreal forests, the increased amount ecosystem edges can create hotspots for inter-biome competition, making these ecosystem-level migratory changes come much quicker. For example, Minnesota’s grasslands are historically more successful at functioning under erratic precipitation systems, and will beat out boreal forests in competition for space more and more frequently under climate change.

To make things worse, when boreal forests are pushed out of Minnesota in favor of grasslands and temperate forests, this doesn’t necessarily mean more will spring up further north. Or at least not without consequences. 

There is a point in the arctic called the treeline, where permafrost stores (soils frozen year-round) are too thick to allow for any trees to spread their roots. However, permafrost has been melting and the arctic has been greening further and further north. While this might preserve some boreal forests in the immediate future, melting permafrost directly releases CO2 and methane, both powerful greenhouse gases. The impacts of permafrost melt are so drastic, that many call it the ‘carbon bomb’. Experts estimate that permafrost stores worldwide safely store 1.5 trillion tons of frozen CO2. For reference, that is over 40 times the amount of CO2 released by humans into the atmosphere in 2018, and double the current total atmospheric CO2 from all sources. Regardless of the speed of release, this would likely be enough to make the impacts of climate change functionally irreversible. 

Increased CO2 and methane emissions 

Within the Northwoods, the region’s bogs are particularly at risk. Not only are they likely to degrade or dry up under climate change, destroying a valuable habitat for local flora and fauna, they also will contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions in a similar way as melting permafrost. Understanding why can get a bit complex.

Instead of being preserved by frozen conditions, as with permafrost, the carbon within peat bogs is preserved by wet, oxygen-poor, acidic conditions. Keeping the bog acidic and moist allows for any dead plants that fall to the ground to resist decomposition, a CO2 and methane releasing process. This is the same reason that pickles won’t rot when you put them in vinegar. It’s also the reason that you hear of entire people being preserved in bogs. 

Very slowly, over thousands of years, layers of peat will grow to store thousands of years worth of carbon. Even though peat bogs only cover 3% of the world’s surface, they store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. But this carbon is at risk of being emitted into the atmosphere as CO2 or methane under stressors such as fire, drought, or extreme heat. This is the same reason that the palm oil harvesting fires in the swamp peatlands of Malaysia and Indonesia have had such intense carbon footprints.

While obviously less intense than fires, climate change may have similar effects over time that will dry the peat with through increased temperatures and droughts. Research is still in development on how fast peat bogs will release carbon and what stressors in particular will be the worst. But current results overwhelmingly show that they will shift towards releasing far more greenhouse gases than they currently take in. 

Thankfully, we can also use peatlands to our advantage in climate change mitigation. Peatland conservation through controlled wetting has had great results. But the first step to knowing where and when to step in is more research and policies to protect these regions. Peatlands are often neglected in major conservation efforts or policy decisions in favor of more public-friendly choices such as forest or grassland conservation. A little change in funding and research could go a long way. 

What you can do to help 

If you want to preserve the local Minnesota ecosystems such as our bogs and the boundary waters, a great way to do so is through local activism. Volunteering with MN350 will allow you to fight climate change at its source and find new solutions for the future. There are opportunities for every skill set and experience level to help with our policy proposals, community outreach, public art, communications, and more. 

Jean Pengra is a communications intern for MN350 with passions in climate science and climate change mitigation. He is set to graduate from Macalester College with degrees in Biology and Environmental Studies in May of 2020, and hopes to pursue graduate studies in the climate sciences within the next few years. He also really really wants people to care about bogs.