Large swaths of Northeastern Minnesota’s wild country — including the Superior National Forest and North Shore state parks — are potential safe zones for nature to adapt to climate change, but only if they remain protected and undeveloped.
That’s the finding of a report released Tuesday by the Nature Conservancy that mapped areas across the U.S. after measuring climate resilience — the ability to resist climate change.
Studies have shown that some species are moving an average of 11 miles north, or 36 feet higher in elevation, each decade to find more hospitable places to live as the climate changes. In Minnesota, species like moose, lynx, lake trout, brook trout and maybe spruce grouse all face diminished territory as the climate warms, pushing them north into Canada.
But research shows that nearly 60% of U.S. lands and waters are fragmented by human development, blocking species movement and preventing them from finding new areas.
As warmer temperatures, increased flooding and other climate impacts alter habitat, scientists believe resilient areas — like the undeveloped lands in Northeastern Minnesota — will be strong enough to continue providing safe places for diverse plant and animal species, while also providing clean drinking water and economic income from timber harvest and recreation.
The map, developed over a decade by a team of 150 scientists, already is being used by government land agencies and nonprofit land trust organizations to make decisions on where to invest in climate adaptation.
“It’s helped us prioritize how we spend our time and resources so we can invest in places that have a stronger chance of withstanding the impact of climate change,” said Wayne Ostlie, director of land protection for Minnesota Land Trust, in a statement announcing the effort.
Foresters for the Superior National Forest are using the data to plan for climate change.
“This provides us the ability to home in on areas that are highly resilient,” said Katie Freker, an ecologist for the national forest.
The scientists found that areas with diverse physical characteristics — such as steep slopes, mountains, deep ravines and diverse soil types — create numerous microclimates that offer plants and animals the opportunity to move around their local “neighborhood” to find suitable habitat where they can escape rising temperatures, increased floods or drought.
Large areas of northern Wisconsin, including parts of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, as well as parts of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin, also rank high on the resilience list.
“This gives us hope that if we work to keep these special places strong, they will keep nature strong,” said Ann Mulholland, who directs the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, in a statement. “These unique areas can provide safe places for diverse plant and animal species to thrive in the face of growing climate threats.”