Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: In the Sandbox of Minnesota Politics, the Climate Hasn’t Changed

Driving home from work on Tuesday, March 13, I suddenly realized spring advanced a week in a day. Steady rain on the previous day left the snow saturated and poised for a rapid thaw. Sunshine and temperatures soaring above 50 degrees kicked Spring into full gear.

As a trout fisherman, I follow Spring’s progression by watching the rivers. Last week, what usually occurs over a period of weeks happened in a few days. The snow cover, ranging from one to two feet, simply disappeared. The streams filled with snowmelt, which is typically a mid April occurrence.

Posts from Golden Eagle Lodge on the Gunflint Trail tell the story. On March 8 the lodge reported over 20 inches of snow fell in February and predicted another three weeks of cross-country skiing were ahead. A week later, on March 15, the Lodge reported Spring arrived and they were no longer maintaining ski trails. Total snowfall for the winter thus far, while exceeding just about anywhere else in Minnesota, was a mere 66 inches.

At this writing, the warmth continues. We haven’t started a fire in our wood furnace for three days. During the same time period, the ground in my yard thawed. I first stuck a pitchfork in the garden and reached frozen soil four inches beneath the surface. Two days later, I could easily dig down more than a foot. My garden is just 20 miles from the Canadian border. Most years, the frost doesn’t leave the ground until the first of May.

North Shore residents welcome the unusually warm weather and abrupt end to winter. But I feel cheated out of six weeks of my favorite season. Spring typically arrives in fits and starts as winter grudgingly retreats. Deep snow often lingers until late April. This year, even if more snow falls, it won’t last very long.

While we can’t predict the weather for the next six weeks, it seems safe to assume Spring is on a fast track in the North. Some good may come from the rapid warm-up. For starters, deer and other wildlife are likely to benefit from the mild conditions. So far, I haven’t noticed an uptick in migrating birds, though surely many species will arrive early at their northern nesting grounds. Gardeners will be digging in the dirt ahead of schedule and should have an extraordinary year. Because the winter was mild, all Minnesotans enjoyed lower heating bills.

The forest is haunted by the specter of drought. We’ve had little precipitation since the Pagami Creek wildfire ripped across the parched Boundary Waters wilderness last autumn. Unless we receive copious amounts of moisture in the coming weeks, the forest will be tinder dry and ripe for trouble—big trouble. The Ham Lake Fire in the Spring of 2007 occurred in similar dry conditions.

Drought also affects water levels in lakes and streams. Spring-spawning steelhead in North Shore rivers may have a tough time after the meager snowmelt runs off. If low water conditions continue into summer, the water in creeks may become too warm for trout to survive. In lakes and connecting waterways, low water may diminish spawning success for walleyes and northern pike. However, members of the sunfish family, such as smallmouth bass and black crappie, have their best spawns in summers when water temperatures warm early.

What we really don’t know is how the mild weather may affect the native flora and fauna of the boreal forest. A finger of the great northern woods extends down the North Shore due to Lake Superior’s cooling affect on the climate. Never is this forest more alive than on cold, moist days in Spring when everything from moss and lichens to spruce and balsam trees are their most vibrant green.

Northern natives from tiny Arctic plants to moose exist within Minnesota’s boreal forest. While all can adapt to the vagaries of the weather, they are less able to cope with a warming climate. Already, scientists say northern wildlife such as moose and fish such as cisco and even eelpout are declining in Minnesota, quite possibly because their environs are becoming too warm.

Since every indicator, other than the Minnesota Legislature, shows significant warming has already occurred in the state and is likely to continue. What we really don’t know is how long it will be before the northern ecosystem experiences a climate-caused failure. Scientists predict climate change will cause our northern forests to be replaced by more southern tree species, but for now the woods are still the same. We don’t know if the change, when it occurs, will be gradual or abrupt.

For instance, what happens if mild winters aid the survival of a bug that is capable of killing off a common northern tree like the aspen? After all, Minnesota lies at the southern edge of the aspen’s range. Imagine what the northwoods would look like if there were millions of dead and dying trees. We can only wonder, too, what might happen to our 10,000 lakes as the climate warms. If we are already losing species like cisco as summer water temperatures become too warm for them, how long it will be before we start losing walleyes in shallow lakes like Mille Lacs?

It’s amazing to me, that some of Minnesota’s elected representatives don’t believe the climate is changing and are stifling any climate-related discussions at the State Capitol. Perhaps they are early victims of climate-induced heat stroke. More likely, they have their heads firmly buried in political sand. Unfortunately for northern Minnesota, down in the sandbox, the climate always stays the same.

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