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Managing Ecosystems in the Face of Change

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Minnesota's climate is changing. Not only are we experiencing a strangely warm and early spring, but the evidence from historical climate data is mounting and unmistakable: average annual temperatures are rising, average precipitation is increasing and storms, floods and droughts are becoming more common. The story the data tell is one of a future Minnesota that is hotter, wetter and with more unpredictable and variable weather.

Yet the data can't tell us everything we might want to know about Minnesota 50 or 100 years from now. How will the changing climate affect our state's beloved lakes and rivers? Will pines, spruce and fir fill the forests of the north woods - or will deciduous trees or grasses, better adapted to a warmer world, replace them in the decades or centuries to come? And will Minnesota's species, both common and rare, stay within our borders or flee as their native habitats are subjected to a changing climate, invasive species or other environmental or human pressures?

These questions and more were the focus of a meeting at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last month, as the agency works to develop a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Minnesota's native habitat types. The DNR manages 5.5 million acres of land across the state and is charged with ensuring the support of healthy wildlife populations as well. This responsibility is difficult enough in a context of competing interests and shrinking budgets, but the challenge will only increase as the agency tries to prepare Minnesota's natural resources for a changing climate.

To cope with the challenge of managing ecosystems in the face of climate change, the DNR asked for help from the Boreal Forest and Community Resilience Project, a Discovery Grant project at the Institute on the Environment. This project, led by Regents professor Peter Reich, was launched in 2010 to help build social and ecological resilience - to enhance the capacity of human communities and ecosystems to cope with stressors and adapt to change.

One way the Boreal Forest Project helps build resilience is by working with various stakeholders in Minnesota and beyond to incorporate thinking about uncertainty and complexity into decision-making. With the DNR, we are developing "systems mapping" workshops to accomplish rapid vulnerability assessments for key habitats and ecosystems in the state. Systems mapping is used to understand complex systems by revealing critical relationships, highlighting major uncertainties and identifying potential opportunities for action. For the DNR vulnerability assessments, scientists and experts familiar with Minnesota's ecosystems will work together to distinguish among the major factors that influence ecosystems in our state and assess how climate change and other stressors might affect these systems in the future.

Efforts like this are critically useful when scientific and technical analyses alone can't provide us with the answers we need to make good decisions. Although current data and models cannot give concrete guidance about how to manage our state's ecosystems in a changing climate, the DNR stills needs to prepare for a future shaped by climate change. With the help of the Boreal Project and the systems mapping workshops, the DNR will harness the best available scientific expertise to guide public land management and ensure our state's ecosystems are as resilient as possible to climate change.

Photo by smarzinske via Creative Commons

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.