Autumn Trees

Measuring the Future of Minnesota's Trees Amidst Climate Change

As the air grew colder and trees took their annual turn toward a dazzling array of oranges, yellows and reds, Minnesotans enjoyed the natural beauty their state has to offer again this fall. But what if, in years to come, those trees don’t find Minnesota to be a hospitable, happy home any longer?

Sophomore Rachael Heier spent last summer researching how annual climate change may affect our native trees in a zone where winters are projected to be closer to that of current Wisconsin, and summers closer to that of current Kansas.

“Many large, broad-leafed trees, pines, oaks, are not able to adapt quickly enough to changing temperatures,” Heier said. “It’s pretty impactful to see an actual physical effect on these things you see and love as a Minnesota citizen.”

Heier worked with biology associate professor Simon Emms, connecting with – and funded by a grant from – Great River Greening on the Fish Creek restoration project, which St. Thomas has helped with since 2011.

“It provides an opportunity to work on a really important question in conservation biology and restoration ecology: How do we preserve natural areas and the biodiversity they contain in the face of climate change that is altering the physical and biological conditions that those areas experience?” Emms said. “Second, it enables [students] to see how they can participate in meaningful, practical activities that protect, preserve and restore local natural environments – both for the wildlife that lives there and for local communities to enjoy.”

For Heier, those practical activities centered on assisted colonization, where two types of saplings from the same species of white oak were planted “to see if we would transplant similar species that are adapted to warmer or colder climates,” Heier said.

Heier and others counted and measured about 830 year-old plantings, which represent the baseline for measurements that will continue for another 10-15 years, she said.

“It was cool to be on the front end and laying down the base groundwork, this really essential part,” Heier said.

While Heier said she long has been interested in mitigating climate change, working on research like this helped her see the kind of impact smaller-scale projects can have toward bigger results.

“It’s not the biggest thing but everything does start on a local level. If you can do these projects and make it work, then it could be implemented on a wider scale and have even more impact,” she said. “It made me feel better about the problem, no matter how large and insurmountable it is. This made it manageable to know there are physical things we can do about it."

“None of us individually is going to be able solve the world’s major environmental problems, so the key is to find something positive to contribute at a local or regional scale and recognize that if many others do the same, global change is possible,” Emms added. “Rachael was a great research student – she was interested in the project, intelligent, hard-working and thoughtful. Regardless of what she does next, having had a meaningful research experience as an undergraduate will be of great benefit to her.”