A different kind of forest is likely to emerge from the ashes of the Pagami Creek fire, one that will reflect the impact that climate change is working on all of Minnesota’s famed North Woods.
The Pagami Creek fire has opened nearly 100,000 acres to a new kind of landscape, one that will be less dense and include a mix of grassland, maples and oaks — and possibly invasive species like buckthorn, says Lee Frelich, director of the Center for Forest Ecology at the University of Minnesota and an expert on boreal forests.
This fire and future blazes “can help the forest make the transition that it needs to adjust to a warmer climate,” he said.
Minnesota’s woods are especially sensitive to the warming temperatures and extreme weather events of recent years. Many species of trees and animals in and near the BWCA, including jack pine and moose, are already at the southern end of their natural range. The region’s thin soil makes trees especially vulnerable to stress and drought.
But hardwoods such as oak and maple are at their northern edge, marking a region that is likely to see a dramatic shift as the climate continues warming.
Even now, changes in weather affect the frequency and intensity of forest fires, Frelich said. The last century saw fewer, smaller fires than the ones that raged through the Boundary Waters in the 1800s and routinely blackened 300 to 800 square miles, he said. In the last 100 years, the climate was wetter and more humid, and as the population grew, fires in the region were suppressed because of the risk to life and property.
But now, Frelich said, weather patterns are marked by extremes — flooding and torrential rain on the one hand, and drought on the other. The fire in the BWCA has spread with breathtaking speed because the conditions are so dry.
“A warming climate is more conducive to more fires,” he said.