Climate Change: The Good, The Bad, and The Barley

The Minnesota of the future will look very different from today. So, too, will the future of Minnesota beer.

"Quest" barley, released in 2010 by the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, was the first U of M barley with improved resistance to Fusarium head blight // Photo by David Hansen, University of Minnesota

“Quest” barley, released in 2010 by the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, was the first U of M barley with improved resistance to Fusarium head blight // Photo by David Hansen, University of Minnesota

Photos by David Hansen, University of Minnesota

In January 2015, the United Kingdom’s Hadley Center for Climate, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held press conferences—all in the same week—to declare 2014 the world’s warmest year on record since 1880.

The NOAA followed up in March, reporting that for the first time since record keeping began, global carbon dioxide levels surpassed 400 parts per million.

Meanwhile, California is in the midst of its worst drought in 1,200 years, and extreme weather events are up nationwide. In 2010, Minnesota led the nation in tornadoes for the first time ever, with 113.

This all raises an important question: What does climate change mean for Minnesota—and for the future of beer?

Triple threat

'Quest' barley variety developed by and released by the University of Minnesota, Agricultural Experiment Station in 2010. A significant attribute of 'Quest' is improved Fusarium head blight resistance. Research project #13-030, "Barley Breeding and Genetics." Principal investigator: Kevin Paul Smith.

The University of Minnesota’s “Quest” barley // Photo by David Hansen, University of Minnesota

To understand where our climate is heading, one must first appreciate the uniqueness of Minnesota. The state is home to the rare phenomenon of a triple meeting point of three great ecosystems: the boreal forest, the temperate forest, and the prairie grasslands, which all intersect in central Minnesota.

And as it turns out, the places most sensitive to climate change are those at the boundaries of ecosystems.

Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology, studies Minnesota’s northern forests. All trees, he says, including the boreal forest trees of the north (birch, aspen, spruce, jack pines), track the climate they prefer.

Frelich says that data shows Minnesota’s climate in recent years moving northward at an average pace of approximately three miles per year. That may not sound like much, but it means by end of this century the current climate of St. Cloud will have moved all the way up to Thunder Bay, Ontario, says Frelich.

Trees won’t be able to keep up. “Most of our tree species over the last 10,000 years have moved about one-tenth of that rate—0.3 miles per year. So three miles per year—that’s way faster than they’ve been moving for the last many centuries, [and] much faster than trees have historically been able to move.”

Eventually, says Frelich, the boreal forest will be pushed northward out of the state entirely, and Minnesota will become a two-biome state. Beer drinkers, known for their love of the outdoors combined with a favorite beverage, might wonder just what that means for the Boundary Waters.

“Big changes are coming. I don’t think any forest in Minnesota is going to stay the same. By the end of this century […] I think the boundary waters for example—the eastern part of it will be replaced by red maple and oak, and the western part is likely to become an savannah (a lightly forested grassland). We’ve found that is indeed happening—especially red maple is invading a lot of places in the area,” says Frelich.

And as the structure of the habitat changes, so will the wildlife species that habitat supports, says Frelich. Moose will be replaced by deer, and lynx will have to make way for the bobcat. Indeed, Minnesota is already seeing struggles in the moose population (to say nothing of the plight of the walleye).

Minnesota’s collective identity is one intricately tied to its outdoors, whether our waters and land are used for recreation or making a living. On the former point, all of us can list examples—fishing the 10,000+ lakes, paddling the boundary waters, hiking the Superior Hiking Trail, boating on the Mississippi River.

When it comes to the latter, it may be a surprise to some that more than a quarter of the state’s economy is tied up in agriculture and forestry ($75 billion in agricultural economic activity; $10+ billion in forestry). We have 10,000 lakes, sure, but also 75,000 farms. We’re the 5th biggest agricultural producer in the nation, with loads of corn, lots of soybeans, and the rest primarily small grains (as well as horticultural products), including one of beer’s main ingredients—barley.

Next Page: Tracking Barley

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