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Minnesota Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis

This assessment provides scientific information on climate change and forest ecosystem conditions in northern Minnesota. The main goal of this assessment is to provide forest managers, as well as other people who study, recreate, and live in the region, with information on factors influencing forest ecosystem vulnerability under future climate conditions.

Map of assessment area
The assessment area outlined in black includes northern Minnesota.

Forest ecosystems in northern Minnesota will be affected directly and indirectly by a changing climate during the 21st century. Maintaining healthy forest ecosystems requires understanding the factors that could potentially impact forests, under future climate conditions. This assessment evaluates key ecosystem vulnerabilities for forests in the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province in Minnesota across a range of future climate scenarios. The assessment summarizes current conditions, and key stressors, and identifies past and projected trends in climate. This information is used to model future forest change and, along with published research and local expertise, is used to identify factors contributing to the vulnerability of major forest systems in the region over the next 100 years. Assessment of forest vulnerabilities was conducted with assistance and input from multiple scientists and forest management experts across the state of Minnesota, using a formal consensus-based elicitation process.

Major Findings

  • Observed trends in climate during the past century reveal that precipitation has increased in the region, especially during the summer and fall, and that daily maximum temperatures have increased, particularly in winter.
  • Forest impact models suggest that northern boreal species, such as black spruce and paper birch, may fare worse under modeled future climate conditions; however, other species such as American basswood and white pine may benefit under the projected future climate.
  • Wet Forests, Forested Rich Peatlands, and Acid Peatlands were determined to be the most vulnerable to projected changes in climate, whereas Floodplain Forests, Fire Dependent Forests, and Mesic Hardwood Forests were determined to be less vulnerable.
  • Projected changes in climate and the associated ecosystem impacts and vulnerabilities will have important implications for economically valuable timber species, forest-dependent wildlife and plants, recreation, and long-range planning.
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Details of the Vulnerability Assessment

The information below is a summary of each chapter available in the vulnerability assessment. For more information and in-depth discussion please refer to the full report.

This chapter describes the forests and related ecosystems across the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province in Minnesota and summarizes current threats and management trends. This information lays the foundation for understanding how shifts in climate may contribute to changes in forest ecosystems, and how climate may interact with other stressors on the landscape.

  • More than 85% of the forest land in Minnesota occurs within the assessment area, most of which is owned by private landowners.

  • Major stressors and threats to forest ecosystems in the region are:
    • Fragmentation and land-use change
    • Fire regime shifts
    • Nonnative species invasion
    • Forest pests and disease
    • Overbrowsing by deer
    • Extreme weather events
  • Management practices during the past several decades have tended to favor aspen across the landscape and reduce species diversity and structural complexity.
  • The forest products industry is a major contributor to the region’s economy, and most of the forest land in the assessment area is managed according to at least one sustainability certification standard.

This chapter provides a brief background on climate change science, models that simulate future climate change, and models that project the effects of climate change on tree species and ecosystems. This chapter also describes the climate data used in this assessment.

  • Temperatures have been increasing at a global scale and across the United States over the past century.
  • Major contributors to warming are greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning, agriculture, and changes in land use.

This chapter summarizes our understanding of observed changes and climate trends in the assessment area and across the Midwest region, with a focus on the last century.

  • Mean, maximum, and minimum temperatures have been increasing across all seasons, with winter temperatures warming the most rapidly.
  • The assessment area has received more precipitation, particularly in the summer and fall.
  • More precipitation has been delivered in heavy events of 3 inches or greater.
  • Snowfall has been decreasing across northern Minnesota, although there has been an increase in large winter storms.
  • Climate change has also been indicated by trends in lake ice, growing season length, and wildlife range shifts.

This chapter examines how climate may change in the assessment area over the next century, according to a range of model projections. Published scientific literature provides the basis for describing possible trends in a range of climate-driven processes, such as extreme weather events and snowfall.

  • Temperature is projected to increase across all seasons over the next century, with dramatic warming projected in winter.
  • Precipitation is projected to increase in winter and spring across a range of climate scenarios, but summer precipitation may decrease.
  • Intense precipitation events may continue to become more frequent.
  • Snowfall is projected to continue to decline across the assessment area, with more winter precipitation falling as rain.
  • Soils are projected to be frozen for shorter periods during winter.

This chapter summarizes the potential impacts of climate change on forests in the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province in Minnesota, drawing on information from a coordinated series of model simulations and published research.

  • Boreal species such as quaking aspen, paper birch, tamarack, and black spruce are projected to decrease in suitable habitat and biomass across the assessment area.
  • Species with ranges that extend to the south such as American basswood, black cherry, northern red oak, and eastern white pine may increase in suitable habitat and biomass across the assessment area.
  • Many common species in northern Minnesota may decline under the hotter, drier future climate scenario.
  • Forest productivity will be influenced by a combination of factors such as carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilization, water and nutrient availability, and species migration.
  • Model projections do not account for many other factors that may be modified by a changing climate, including:
    • Drought stress
    • Changes in hydrology and flood regime
    • Wildfire frequency and severity
    • Altered nutrient cycling
    • Changes in invasive species, pests, and pathogens

This chapter focuses on the climate change vulnerability of major forest systems in the assessment area during the next 100 years, particularly on shifts in dominant species, system drivers, and stressors.

The adaptive capacity of forest systems was also examined as a key component of overall vulnerability. Synthesis statements are provided to capture general trends, and detailed vulnerability determinations are also provided for eight major forest systems.

We consider a system to be vulnerable if it is at risk of a composition change leading to a new identity, or if the system is anticipated to suffer substantial declines in health or productivity.

Potential Impacts Of Climate Change On Ecosystem Drivers And Stressors

  • Temperatures will increase (robust evidence, high agreement). All global climate models project that temperatures will increase with continued increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.
  • Winter processes will change (robust evidence, high agreement). All evidence agrees that temperatures will increase more in winter than in other seasons across the assessment area, leading to changes in snowfall, soil frost, and other winter processes.
  • Growing seasons will get longer (robust evidence, high agreement). There is high agreement among information sources that projected temperature increases will lead to longer growing seasons in the assessment area.
  • The amount and timing of precipitation will change (medium evidence, high agreement). All global climate models agree that there will be changes in precipitation patterns across the assessment area.
  • Intense precipitation events will continue to become more frequent (medium evidence, medium agreement). There is some agreement that the number of heavy precipitation events will continue to increase in the assessment area. If they do increase, impacts from flooding and soil erosion may also become more damaging.
  • Droughts will increase in duration and area (limited evidence, low agreement). A study using multiple climate models indicates that drought may increase in length and extent, and an episodic precipitation regime could mean longer dry periods between events.
  • Soil moisture patterns will change (medium evidence, high agreement), with drier soil conditions later in the growing season (medium evidence, medium agreement). Studies show that climate change will affect soil moisture, but there is disagreement among climate and impact models on how soil moisture will change during the growing season.
  • Climate conditions will increase fire risks by the end of the century (medium evidence, medium agreement). Some national and global studies suggest that wildfire risk will increase in the region, but few studies have specifically looked at wildfire potential in the assessment area.
  • Many invasive species, insect pests, and pathogens will increase or become more damaging (limited evidence, high agreement). Evidence indicates that an increase in temperature and greater moisture stress will lead to increases in these threats, but research to date has examined few species.

Potential Impacts Of Climate Change On Forest Communities

  • Boreal species will face increasing stress from climate change (medium evidence, high agreement). Impact models agree that boreal or northern species will experience reduced suitable habitat and biomass across the assessment area and that they may be less able to take advantage of longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures than temperate forest communities.
  • Southern species will be favored by climate change (medium evidence, high agreement). Impact models agree that many temperate species will experience increasing suitable habitat and biomass across the assessment area and that longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures will lead to productivity increases for temperate forest types.
  • Forest communities will change across the landscape (limited evidence, high agreement). Although few models have specifically examined how communities may change, model results from individual species and ecological principles suggest that recognized forest communities may change in composition as well as occupied range.
  • Forest productivity will increase across the assessment area (medium evidence, medium agreement). Model projections and other evidence support modest productivity increases for forests across the assessment area, although there is uncertainty about the effects of increased CO2. It is expected that productivity will be reduced in localized areas.

Adaptive Capacity Factors

  • Low-diversity systems are at greater risk (medium evidence, high agreement). Studies have consistently shown that diverse systems are more resilient to disturbance, and low-diversity systems have fewer options to respond to change.
  • Species in fragmented landscapes will have less opportunity to migrate in response to climate change (limited evidence, high agreement). The dispersal ability of individual species is reduced in fragmented landscapes, but the future degree of landscape fragmentation and the potential for human-assisted migration are two areas of uncertainty.
  • Systems that are limited to particular environments will have less opportunity to migrate in response to climate change (limited evidence, high agreement). Despite a lack of published research demonstrating this concept in the assessment area, our current ecological understanding indicates that migration to new areas will be especially difficult for species and systems with narrow habitat requirements.
  • Systems that are more tolerant of disturbance have less risk of declining on the landscape (medium evidence, high agreement). Basic ecological theory and other evidence support the idea that systems that are adapted to more frequent disturbance will be at lower risk.

This chapter summarizes the implications of potential climate change to forest management and planning in northern Minnesota. This chapter does not make recommendations as to how management should be adjusted to cope with these impacts, because impacts and responses will vary across ecosystems, ownerships, management objectives, and site-specific conditions.

  • Plants, animals, and people that depend on forests may face additional challenges as the climate shifts.
  • Greater financial investments may be required to manage forests and infrastructure and to prepare for severe weather events.
  • Management activities such as wildfire suppression or recreation activities such as snowmobiling may need to be altered as temperatures and precipitation patterns change.
  • Climate change may present opportunities for the forest products industry, recreation, and other sectors if changing conditions are anticipated.

Download The Full Vulnerability Assessment

How To Cite This Report

Handler, Stephen; Duveneck, Matthew J.; Iverson, Louis; Peters, Emily; Scheller, Robert M.; Wythers, Kirk R.; Brandt, Leslie; Butler, Patricia; Janowiak, Maria; Shannon, P. Danielle; Swanston, Chris; Barrett, Kelly; Kolka, Randy; McQuiston, Casey; Palik, Brian; Reich, Peter B.; Turner, Clarence; White, Mark; Adams, Cheryl; D'Amato, Anthony; Hagell, Suzanne; Johnson, Patricia; Johnson, Rosemary; Larson, Mike; Matthews, Stephen; Montgomery, Rebecca; Olson, Steve; Peters, Matthew; Prasad, Anantha; Rajala, Jack; Daley, Jad; Davenport, Mae; Emery, Marla R.; Fehringer, David; Hoving, Christopher L.; Johnson, Gary; Johnson, Lucinda; Neitzel, David; Rissman, Adena; Rittenhouse, Chadwick; Ziel, Robert. 2014. Minnesota forest ecosystem vulnerability assessment and synthesis: a report from the Northwoods Climate Change Response Framework project. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-133. Newtown Square, PA; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 228 p.