NRRI research on effects of climate change
Red Pine Thinning
Canada lynx update (info from conference)
Minnesota's Critical Minerals
NRRI scientists have been actively engaged in studying the impacts of climate change for 20 years. And today's climate for these discussions is much more comfortable. That wasn't the case in the mid-1980s when forest ecologist John Pastor came to NRRI to study how a predicted warmer climate would affect tree growth. At that time, no one else was doing research to predict what warmer, drier conditions would do to Minnesota's wood resources, and the scenario from his computer model wasn't exactly good news for industries that depend on those resources.
"Changes in temperature and precipitation mean changes to the forest," Pastor explained. "The sandy soils up north just can't hold enough water to compensate. And on clay soils that can hold enough water, there will still be forests, they'll just be different forests."
The climate model predictions for Minnesota are now widely publicized and generally accepted. Over the next century, scientists expect a five to ten degree Fahrenheit temperature increase, and increased extreme storm events. More evaporation and transpiration will cause drier soils. Along with these changes will come a domino effect of stresses on everything animal and vegetable.
From the early forest sustainability research NRRI has built a strong research portfolio, lending its environmental expertise and industry focus to study climate impacts on water quality, amphibians, birds and mammals.
NRRI's climate change research fits nicely with the University of Minnesota's goals for its new Institute on the Environment (IonE). NRRI aquatic scientist and IonE founding fellow Lucinda Johnson began her research on climate change in 2001 when a colleague recommended her as an author on a report that has become the reference manual for impacts to the upper Midwest.
"Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region" was published in April 2003 by the Ecological Society of America and the Union of Concerned Scientists. As one of 13 authors, Johnson's role was to study the impacts on aquatic ecosystems.
The background knowledge from that project led to funding from the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources to pull together data that shows readily apparent signs of climate change in Minnesota.
NRRI scientists are leading a team that is looking at data already available on climate and responses to changes in water quality and levels, aquatic ecosystems, fish and plants.
Johnson is organizing the layers of information into a computer landscape that helps scientists understand how all those biological elements interact in response to a warmer, drier climate. Other NRRI aquatic ecologists are helping to assemble and analyze water quality and biological records of Minnesota lakes and their relationships to climate, ice-out and land use trends.
"Climate change will not take place in a vacuum," said Johnson. "We already have many other stressors on our ecosystems. Ethanol production, for example, is up because we're concerned about the scarcity of oil and we're trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but there are big concerns about growing more corn because corn production depletes soils and causes water pollution. Facilities that produce ethanol also use scarce ground water resources."
Johnson thinks NRRI's role as an advocate for both environmental sustainability and industry puts it in a unique position to help both sides meet in the middle with solid information.
"Will the forests be sustainable? Will the trees stay healthy? Will we have enough clean water for the future? Those questions affect us all," said Johnson.
While Pastor modeled the larger forest landscape back in the 80s, NRRI forest ecologist George Host came on board and zeroed in on computer models of individual trees and their response to increased ozone, temperature and carbon dioxide. Ozone, like carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, but in the lower atmosphere affects both human health and plant life.
"There's a lot of biology behind this technology," Host explained. "The computer model simulates biological processes like photosynthesis and carbon allocation. How does the tree produce food for itself and how does it grow?"
Host continues this research with a patch of "virtual" trees, applying "virtual" climates, varying the conditions and watching how the trees respond. He says this modeling approach complements scientific experiments in the field.
Now he's applying the model across the Midwest for the U.S. Forest Service to predict where the forest might lose the most productivity based on future scenarios.
"We're trying to predict the tree's productivity loss or gain resulting from climate change," said Host. "Increased carbon dioxide tends to increase plant growth, but ozone is an impairment. Do those two balance each other out?"
By the 1990s, Pastor's work evolved to peatlands and their role in the global carbon cycle. Minnesota has some 7.5 million acres of this type of wetland and he knew they were valuable carbon storehouses. Funding from NASA allowed Pastor and his colleagues to study how much greenhouse gases are produced and released by peatlands. This research was the first systematic measurement of greenhouse gases from peatlands in Minnesota.
By 1993 the National Science Foundation provided funds to expand the research. What happens to peatlands when climate is warmer and drier?
NRRI's Fens Research facility, a 435 acre site located in the heart of a very large peatland complex, was set up with 60, circular bog and fen mesocosms (small ecosystems) weighing about one ton each. Each mesocosm was subjected to varying temperatures and water levels.
The results are proving to be valuable. Pastor recently received a call from Governor Pawlenty's office asking what can be done to prevent carbon from being released from peatlands.
"I told them, just keep the water table high, because when it drops the peat decomposes and collapses, releasing carbon," said Pastor. "A lot of peatlands were drained for farming in the 1930s and I would say, let the water table rise where possible. Any ditches that aren't already plugged up should be."
Of course, all wetlands, and the critters that live in them, will be affected by warmer and drier conditions.
NRRI research on leopard frogs living in the shallow wetlands in southern Minnesota suggests that climate change, added to other stressors like agricultural chemicals, could tip the scale.
Tadpoles need water for at least 90 days to develop and then survive best if the pond dries up periodically, it clears the wetland of disease-causing microbes and predators. In warmer conditions, seasonal wetlands may not hold water long enough for breeding and the deeper wetlands that hold water all year round tend to support more predators such as waterfowl and fish. Still, the deeper, semi-permanent wetlands will be important refuges if seasonal wetlands dry up more frequently. The proximity of appropriate wetlands is critical and will need to be considered when decisions are made about protecting and restoring wetlands in the future.
"Frogs can wander from wetland to wetland, but are fairly limited in how far they can travel," said NRRI ecotoxicologist Pat Schoff. "Roads and urban areas also create barriers to movement. There will just be a much lower number of available breeding areas and more species competing for fewer wetlands."
Unfortunately for the frogs, and all biota, climate change is just one of many stressors that threaten their existence. Invasive species, chemicals, development and habitat degradation have made what Schoff calls "a poorly tended garden."
"We've altered this landscape so much that the existence of some of our most familiar species may be threatened," said Schoff. "What would the extinction of leopard frogs mean? We know they're an important part of the wetland food chain, but we don't know what it would be like without them: how many insects do they eat? Who depends on them for food? How do you quantify the value of a species?"
Wildlife have adapted over millennia in northern Minnesota's cold, snowy climate. Species such as moose, Canada lynx, rock vole and many boreal forest bird species will likely decrease or disappear from the area entirely, according to NRRI center director Jerry Niemi.
"We're seeing southern species, like the opossum, raccoon, coyote and red-bellied woodpecker ranging further and further north," Niemi said. "And increased temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns will also negatively impact our northern waterfowl populations."
Each passing year adds more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, escalating us up the graphs that project the future warming of the planet. But each year also adds more data gathered by scientists.
"When I first started working with climate change, I was surprised at how little data there was for actual experimental studies on the impact of potential climate change," said Johnson. "Our role at NRRI is adding to, and interpreting, the data that can help decision-makers, industry or resource managers, plan for the future."
For 30-plus years the questions have hung in air like so much dust: What exactly are people on the Mesabi Iron Range breathing in and is it dangerous?
NRRI geologists, experts in characterizing the minerals underground, are now applying their skills to the mineral particles that are produced during taconite mining and the pellet making process. The goal is to understand the composition of the dust from the west end of the Iron Range to the east, including Silver Bay, so this information can be used by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to assess possible health impacts. The two university organizations are lead participants in the Minnesota Taconite Workers Lung Health Partnership.
It is hoped that the three-year study will finally answer questions about whether the dust caused by mining operations causes health problems, especially mesothelioma, and other lung diseases, in miners and community residents. Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly form of cancer that is almost always related to asbestos exposure.
NRRI's task will be to collect and analyze airborne dust samples from areas around the taconite plants with instruments that separate the particles by size. Samples will also be collected in communities along the Iron Range to understand what residents are exposed to. Nearby lake sediments will also be collected by paleolimnology scientist Euan Reavie at NRRI's Ely Field Lab to reconstruct the historical composition of airborne dust generated by mining activity.
"When it comes to human health, what we're interested in are the particles that can be transported into the lung," explained Tamara Diedrich, lead investigator for NRRI's portion of the Minerals in the air research. "Your nose and throat are pretty good at filtering out the larger particles. It's the smaller ones, less than five microns, which can be retained by the body."
Diedrich holds a doctorate in geology from Arizona State University.
UMD's new electron microscope will be used to study the tiny particles (one micron equals 1,000,000th of a meter) that are specifically three times as long as they are wide. Why so specific?
The Mining Safety and Health Administration uses the 3:1 length-to-width ratio to describe "asbestos." The crushing of taconite ore by mining operations across the Mesabi Iron Range produces similar elongated mineral particles. Only on the easternmost portion of the range, near Northshore Mining, are some of the particles chemically identical to amosite asbestos, causing longstanding concern about their exposure to workers and the public. Geologists know that the elongated particles on the western portion of the Iron Range have a different, non-asbestos composition, but they will also be studied by NRRI researchers. Silica dust is also generated by taconite industries and will be studied.
"We're characterizing all of the dust, all of the particles that meet the right size criteria," added NRRI geologist Larry Zanko. "We'll have quantitative data of what they're made out of, how much there is in the air and in what size fractions."
The sample gathering will be in full swing this spring. NRRI is a major sponsor of the research, providing up to $500,000 from the NRRI portion of the Permanent University Trust Fund.
Legislative funding will be needed to move the scientific data collected into answers to the questions about Iron Range air quality.
The mighty red pine, the official state tree of Minnesota, is planted on about 350,000 acres across the state. The bulk of this resource is used by wood products companies for saw timber, some is pulpwood for oriented strand board, and there may be new markets opening in the biomass energy arena.
So whether you're a private landowner with harvestable pines or a public forest manager, the goal is maximizing value and productivity. NRRI forestry experts are working on a series of experiments with the Minnesota Forest Productivity Research Cooperative to understand which thinning techniques are best for growth and value.
Red pines grow rapidly up to age 20 years or so and, like the carrots in your garden, they need space to grow big. But a first thinning of small trees is expensive to do and product value is generally low because of the small size. The value is in the larger diameter trees. The question is how many of those larger trees can you remove from the stand and keep your productivity?
"The saw timber markets in Minnesota can accept small trees, eight to 12 inches in diameter at a minimum, unlike in the Western United States where the mills prefer a larger diameter," said NRRI Forestry Program Director Bill Berguson. "That situation begs for taking out some saw timber in the first thinning, let the stand grow some more and take out a similar size in the next thinning."
The experiments began in 2002 through a cooperative project between NRRI and Potlatch and are now continuing under the Cooperative research program. There are 30 research sites scattered across the region's pine resource area, mostly northern Minnesota and into Wisconsin.
The researchers are implementing three thinning treatments at varying intensities of tree removal: big trees, small trees and trees with the same diameter as the ones left to grow.
"In a nutshell, we're trying to figure out the optimal way to mesh biological growth with the markets that exist in the state," said Berguson. "The results of research will maximize value to landowners in the region."
Another project tied to the red pine thinning is more fundamental plantation research, kind of a report card on how productive a plantation is without thinning, Berguson explained. "What are some of the factors that affect early rotation growth such as early weed control, plant spacing, etc.?"
Foresters plant about 700 trees per acre and end up with about 300 trees per acre due to thinning and deer browse.
Did you know?
*The Red Pine is sometimes referred to as the Norway pine, even though it is not native to Norway.
* Red pine wood is moderately hard and straight grained. It is used for poles, lumber, cabin logs, railway ties, posts, pulpwood, and fuel.
* The Red Pine is well suited to northern climates. It is frequently found where the soil fertility is low, in pure stands or mixed with species such as jack pine, white pine, aspens, oaks, and white birch. This species prefers full sun and is extremely cold tolerant.
* The red pine can live to about 400 years old.
One problem with Canada lynx is clear: they move about heedless of the border between Canada and the U.S. Once it crosses the line, the animal's status changes from a harvested furbearer to a federally listed threatened species.
To discuss the challenges faced by this bi-national wild cat, 70 lynx biologists and resource managers from 10 states and two provinces of Canada gathered in Grand Portage, Minn., in October for "Canada Lynx on the Border: Biological and Political Realities for Conservation Planning."
Lynx in Canada are not a priority species of concern and their future appears secure, unlike populations in northern U.S., explained Justina Ray from Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. Her country has abundant boreal forests, a preferred habitat for lynx. Woodland caribou, by contrast, are threatened and are a high priority species in Canada.
"But considering the number of threats facing boreal forest integrity at the southern edge, it's probably time for Canadians to begin focusing on lynx a bit more," Ray added.
The lynx, with its black-tipped ears and short tail, large feet and deep fur, is a treat to see in Minnesota. But keeping the current population thriving is going to be a challenge, not just in Minnesota, but from Maine to Montana, too. The gathered researchers acknowledged that northern lynx are important to the southern lynx populations and management needs to be regional, not politically divided.
Yet, while the U.S., with its Endangered Species Act, mandates that resource agencies conserve endangered and threatened species, Canada has no such mandate on the lynx, except in some eastern provinces. However, there are some signs of increasing interest north of the 49th parallel, with two new university-led studies initiated in Ontario and Alberta.
The discussions at this conference are important. Funding is needed to move recent knowledge gathered on lynx biology and ecology into management strategies that will preserve habitat and reduce mortality for these wild cats.
Through the course of the conference long lists were made of problems faced by lynx populations in the U.S. Conference leader Rich Baker helped the group distill the list to six compelling problems: forest management and its affect on snowshoe hare population (lynx food); forest fragmentation limiting movement, trapping in Canada and other human-caused mortality, lynx monitoring techniques, climate change, and lastly, the different priorities of U.S. and Canada.
Climate change received a lot of votes as a big concern for lynx. In northern Minnesota, the expected warmer climate will likely cause a decline in lynx populations, but, as NRRI center director Jerry Niemi explained, it depends on what happens to the snowshoe hare, the primary food source for lynx.
"I don't think we actually appreciate how big of an impact climate change is going to have," said Niemi. "Lynx seem to need at least four months of continuous snow cover and there's a lot of uncertainty about future precipitation, specifically snow fall. And we expect northern Minnesota's forest composition to change as the climate continues to warm."
Providing young conifer forests for hares, as well as corridors of movement that keeps the cats away from roads and traps, are important to their survival. The five-year Canada lynx research project at NRRI found that most lynx mortality in the state was caused by human interference, hit by train or car, legally trapped in Canada or incidentally trapped in Minnesota.
NRRI's Ron Moen, lead researcher on the Minnesota lynx project, said he accepts that the two countries have different priorities about lynx.
"We can't expect trappers in Canada to reduce harvests because the U.S. has low populations, and we just heard that harvest of lynx in Ontario is relatively low anyway," Moen said. "It's a matter of population viability. The Minnesota population needs to be able to sustain some mortality and persist."
The questions became more focused as the group zeroed in on what they think can be controlled to increase adult lynx survivorship. Unfortunately, lynx are not particularly skittish when it comes to people or cars. Unlike the bobcat that bolts when encountering a human, the lynx will often hang around a bit before meandering off.
Dividing forested areas into smaller fragments also brings humans and lynx closer together. The researchers agreed that land needs to be managed so that the cats have protected areas to move from Minnesota to Canada, and to hunt freely. But they would like to find out exactly how much land lynx actually need.
"We need to have sound ecological management of our lands so that lynx benefit along with everything else," said Baker. "We can provide for many species, and in Minnesota, that makes a lot of sense."
Have you been eyeing the new hybrid cars on the market? Do you use a computer? Paint your house recently? You may not realize that minerals are key ingredients for products you use every day, and supplies of some may be threatened.
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences released a report in October on "Minerals, Critical Minerals and the U.S. Economy." The report's primary goal is to identify minerals which are critical to the U.S. economy that have the potential for supply restriction.
Minnesota is in a strong position to help our nation lessen its dependence on imported raw materials. Sizable deposits of copper, nickel, manganese, titanium and platinum group metals lie underground in northeastern Minnesota, the extent and quality of the deposits defined by economic geologists at the Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota Duluth. Of those, platinum group metals and manganese are on the Academy of Science's list of minerals "most critical" to the U.S. economy.
"Every year over 25,000 pounds of new minerals must be provided for every person in the United States to make the items that we use every day, and a growing number of these minerals are imported," the report states.
Current interest in Minnesota is focused on copper, nickel and associated platinum group metals, used in a variety of products (see sidebar). The potential in Minnesota's manganese deposit may also have potential. The U.S. currently imports 100 percent of the manganese it needs from South Africa and Russia. Political unrest between nations can impact that supply at any time. Manganese is used to harden and prevent defects in steel, even the aluminum in pop cans.
"This is a boom time for minerals exploration," said NRRI geologist Steve Hauck. "Prices for most minerals are up and we have a number of small companies with the funds to seek out and develop Minnesota's resources."
While Minnesota's deposits are extensive, they are relatively low grade so the question of economic feasibility is important. And any development of these deposits is subject to heightened environmental scrutiny.
Fortunately, processing options for getting at mineral deposits today are more economically feasible and environmentally sound. New hydrometallurgical processing methods avoid high-temperature smelting of ores, which is good news for air quality. Minnesota ore bodies have less sulfur than other state's deposits, reducing the potential for acid rock drainage problems. Mitigation techniques have also improved considerably.
Franconia Minerals Corp. recently announced that their resource estimates show 124.4 million metric tons of copper resources (0.59 percent) and nickel resources (0.21 percent) at their underground Spruce Road copper-nickel deposit, part of their Birch Lake Project in northern Minnesota. This brings Franconia's total underground resource at Birch Lake (Birch Lake, Maturi and Spruce Road deposits) to 307.9 million metric tons.
Brian Gavin, president and CEO of Franconia, explained that their current pre-feasibility program is focused on the Birch Lake and Maturi deposits, not Spruce Road at this time.
"We are looking at the feasibility of developing mines that will be in business for a quarter century and provide more than 500 well-paid, permanent jobs in the region," he said. "The recent estimates at Spruce Road dramatically expand the long-term potential of the Birch Lake Project."
Duluth Metals has defined an underground deposit near Ely, Minn., containing 347 metric tons of indicated copper, nickel and platinum group metal resources.
"Final recoveries of 95 percent for copper and 72 percent for nickel are tremendous, with excellent recoveries on platinum and palladium," stated Henry "Rick" Sandri, Duluth Metals president and CEO, in press release dated October 4.
PolyMet Mining Corp. is engaged in the environmental permitting process to develop a copper-nickel- platinum group mine and plant prior to full-scale mining and production in the Babbitt-Hoyt Lakes area.
Demand for copper, primarily from the growing nations of China and India, has driven the price up to the point where it's targeted by scrap thieves. Robberies in the Duluth area have been reported in which both operating and abandoned buildings have been stripped of their aluminum, copper wiring and copper pipes.
"The key for our region, and for the nation, is that these critical minerals are found in our lands and at levels that can make an impact in the amount of imports that we require to satisfy our nation's needs," said NRRI Center Director Don Fosnacht. "The need is especially acute as we compete with China and India for minerals that all industrial societies require."
Copper: Automobiles (75 lbs. for one hybrid car); construction
Nickel: Key ingredient for high temperature alloys; stainless steel
Manganese: Hardens steel and aluminum; prevents defects in steel during rolling
Titanium: Pigments, surgical instruments, artificial hips and knees
Platinum Group Metals: Vital for catalytic converters and advanced fuel cells; electronics
The Lake Superior Bi-National Forum awarded LakeSuperiorStreams.org, the 2007 Environmental Stewardship Award in the Community/Organization category for the United States.
LakeSuperiorStreams.org uses web-based delivery and interactive animations of real-time stream data to address sustainability issues in western Superior watersheds. It incorporates interpretive information, curricula, and a site design toolkit to inform and educate contractors/ consultants, developers/ realtors, students/teachers, homeowners, agencies and decision-makers. The project has evolved with the Western Superior Regional Stormwater Protection Team (27 organizations), which collaborates to deliver common educational messages, workshops, tools and approaches to this audience.
The site has received six awards since 2004 from state, regional and national organizations and averages about 400,000 server requests a month. To receive monthly email updates, join the LakeSuperiorStreams.org listserve via the "Contact Us" link at the bottom of the web site.
Members of the LakeSuperiorStreams.org university team are Rich Axler, George Host, Norm Will, Jerry Henneck, Elaine Ruzycki, Gerry Sjerven and Jane Reed from NRRI and Cindy Hagley and Jesse Schomberg from the Minnesota Sea Grant Program. Agency partners include the City of Duluth Stormwater Utility, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, South St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District, Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, Cook County Soil and Water Conservation District and Minnesota's Lake Superior Coastal Program administered by the Department of Natural Resources.
Michael Lalich, director
Center for Water and the Environment, Gerald Niemi, director
Center for Applied Research and Technology Development, Donald Fosnacht, director
Center for Economic Development, Elaine Hansen, director
June Kallestad, editor/writer
Trish Sodahl, graphic design
The Natural Resources Research Institute was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1983 to foster economic development of Minnesota's natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.