Forestry center featured in National Geographic


May 13, 2022

Two photos from the Cloquet Forestry Center are featured in this month's National Geographic.

The Cloquet Forestry Center has hit the big time. Well, it really has already made a name for itself in scientific circles. Researchers there are always happy to share what they are working on and when National Geographic came calling, they were more than agreeable to talk about its decade of work on deciphering just what northern Minnesota's forests may look like as the climate changes.

Two photographs taken from the forestry center are featured in an article in the May edition of National Geographic, titled "Fixing Forests." It was part of a special edition of the magazine solely focused on what researchers are finding when it comes to "protecting the planet" by "saving forests."

Researcher Artur Stefanski spoke with an editor about the "Be4Warmed" project that has seen plenty of press already in scientific journals and even the Washington Post in 2020.

Stefanski said he was a bit disappointed that only the photographs were included and nothing about the successful research he and his colleagues have been doing here in Cloquet. Nonetheless, "outreach is a major goal" of the work, Stefanski said, "and any information that goes out to the general public is welcome."

The Be4Warmed project (the name stands for Boreal Forest Warming at an Ecotone in Danger) is looking to find out how rising temperatures will affect places such as northern Minnesota, which is on a critical edge of forest biomes. Will it be hotter and drier, or hotter and wetter, Stefanski said of what the team is trying to divine, and will the traditional conifer forest become more like the oak savannahs you see south of the region. Or will all trees just struggle in a hotter region.

The project has plots at the forestry center where a variety of tree species, including some from as far south as Oklahoma, are being artificially heated with lamps and other devices. The National Geographic piece, with photographs by Minneapolis-based freelancer David Guttenfelder, shows a drone shot of the circular plots and an infrared interpretation with stunning, otherworldly color.

As the University of Minnesota describes the project: "The species composition of the southern boreal biome (much of northern United States and southern Canada) is expected to be especially sensitive to climate warming since there is a relatively sharp boundary between many temperate species to the south and boreal species to the north. The potential of climate warming to alter tree species composition at the southern boreal-temperate forest ecotone (the border here in Cloquet) is being assessed in a number of experiments, including research in experimentally warmed plots."

But change from sensitive firs to more hardwoods in the region isn't as much of a concern as a more overall loss of trees. As the principal investigators have posited: "Increasing oak-maple dominance in our forest communities under a warmer future would represent a shift from our boreal heritage;" they write, "however, both the northern and temperate tree species may perform poorly under warmer conditions. If so, neither our current forest trees nor their potential replacements may be well suited to our future climate."

"We're trying to create, in an ecologically realistic way, the climate of the future," said Peter Reich in the April 29, 2020, Washington Post article on the Cloquet project. He's a professor and forestry expert at the University of Minnesota who conceived of the experiment. "It's like a time machine we're trying to create, so that we know what is going to happen."

The region has been featured in National Geographic before, most recently in 2015 in a feature on the St. Louis River basin.

The unique beauty of the area, and now the research, is an obvious draw.

"The project has received a lot of attention," said Kyle Gill, the coordinator at the forestry center. He said people are "in and out" of the center all the time and the visit from the photographer last summer was just another sign of growing interest in the work there.

He too wishes there had been more context in National Geographic about the work at the center but, hey, the photos were "awesome."


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