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Bog is dead: The waning defense of Minnesota wetlands

Sunrise at Sax Zim Bog.

Posted on February 27, 2023

Early one Sunday morning my son’s Boy Scout troop toured a small research facility in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota. As the presentation began, someone handed me a chunk of wood.

Researchers sawed this simple round from a tree pulled out of a nearby bog. It was perfectly preserved, even though the slab turned out to be older than St. Edward’s chair, Christ’s cross, or even Noah’s Ark. It was certainly older than the European cities that produced my ancestors, the ships that carried them to America and the towering pines they cut down upon arrival.

How old was it?

No joke. Tests confirmed that this tree became entombed in the bog at least 5,000 years ago, preserved by tannins leached into the bog from cedar trees and other vegetation. This reminded me of all the ancient human bodies discovered in wetlands around the world. Some of them were as many as 10,000 years old, their skin and facial features unperturbed by time. Lead scientist Randy Kolka said it’s only a matter of time before we find similarly preserved human remains in the northland.  “They’re out there,” he said.

These finds demonstrate the preservative power of peatlands, including some of the continent’s biggest freshwater bogs here in Minnesota. These wet wonders don’t just preserve old wood and dead bodies. Swamps, bogs and fens capture vast amounts of carbon and have for millennia.

After the last Ice Age, wetlands formed from the recession of glaciers as inland seas transformed into land. Dense, nutrient laden soil captured pools of water upon which layers of peat formed year after year. Even as humans erected smokestacks across the globe, the mosses and peat of wetlands seized and stored carbon from the air.

And if that doesn’t interest you, consider that these peatlands are now poised to belch all that carbon into our atmosphere, tilting climate change from bad to worse in a matter of years, not centuries.

You don’t have to wonder what climate change might do to Minnesota’s forest ecology. At the U.S. Forest Service’s Marcell Experimental Forest, you can see for yourself. Here amid the sphagnum, tamaracks and black spruce, scientists built a fleet of time machines. Each will take you to the future.

Life in the bog

I grew up in the Sax-Zim Bog south of Eveleth. Theoretically, I could have communed with nature and the diverse populations of migratory birds. But in the 1980s my family ran a junkyard. Instead of all that nonsense, I pulled around a metal plate with four protruding bolts pretending it was a cat because our real cat was too mean to pet.

I liked to climb the earthen barricades of my family’s sharp metal playground. St. Louis County forced my grandfather to block the view of the junkyard from Highway 7 with long berms of gravel and swamp muck. He dug them with his backhoe, a dinosaur in the mire, creating a small, shallow lake skimmed with oily rainbows and doomed frogs.

Like Sisyphus, I tried to protect the frogs to no avail. The tadpoles didn’t last long in fish tanks, especially when you fed them French dressing from the school cafeteria. When the vernal pools under the berms began to drain, the tadpoles and young frogs became attractive snacks for crows and snakes.

Out past the gash my family cut in the swamp unfurled the real bog: mossy and foreboding. My mom cautioned my sisters and I not to play out there. We ignored her, usually sinking thigh deep in muck while fleeing clouds of angry ground hornets. Bogs can be scary. Author Annie Proulx captures that feeling in her 2022 book “Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis.”

“Suspense writers find bogs very useful,” Proulx writes. “Bogs stir fear. They are powerfully different from every other landscape and when we first enter one we experience an inchoate feeling of standing in a weird transition zone that separates the living from the rotting. Black pools of still water in the undulating sphagnum moss can seem to be sinkholes into the underworld.”

In 1997, a military fighter jet crashed in a boggy forest in the Finland State Forest several miles east of where I grew up. The plane penetrated 10 feet below the surface, even when the ground was frozen. The tragic crash built a mystique in my mind, largely apocryphal, of a landmass that could swallow the Air Force like a pitcher plant.

After all, carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews, such as the ones that grow in the bogs of Minnesota, evolved to eat meat to supplement the nutrients they can’t get from their environment. The diverse life within peatlands are among the most enterprising you will find.

But that’s not how modern humans came to see swamps and bogs. To them, peatlands represented underused acreage that could be made productive through development into farms.

More than a century ago, Hibbing newspaper editor Claude Atkinson thumped for the agricultural potential of Itasca and St. Louis County on the front pages of his Mesaba Ore. Throughout the Sax-Zim Bog, engineers planned a system of judicial ditches to drain floodplain into tillable soil. If the county moved too slowly, individual farmers acted independently. Most rural counties in Minnesota tell a similar tale.

Swamp land came cheap and for many immigrants it represented a foothold in the American Dream. On the Mesabi Iron Range, this became especially true when mines blacklisted Finnish-Americans after a 1907 strike. Subsistence farms cropped up across northern Minnesota.

Decades later, international pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci, another Hibbing native, imagined a canal that would cut through the bog to connect Iron Range mines to the port of Duluth. No matter how fanciful the dream, the bog was just something in the way.

In her book, Proulx talks about the worldwide phenomenon of draining wetlands to form “productive” land over past centuries. This activity eliminates the carbon-sinking qualities of the wetlands, and it’s also a major factor in the collapse of North American waterfowl populations.. That’s why, of all groups, duck hunters have been among the most aggressive in advocating for wetlands restoration.

The fact that duck hunters count politicians, judges and industrialists among their ranks might explain why they have been so successful. Such idealistic endeavors actually can be achieved if the right people support them.

Future pods

At the Marcell Experimental Forest, Kolka led us down a gangway suspended over the bog. The tamaracks sported their bright gold autumn needles. Meanwhile, the evergreen black spruce stabbed at the sky with their distinctive long-fingered peaks. Set amid the trees were several Plexiglas enclosures that would fit comfortably in a 1970s science fiction movie.

The project is part of the SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments) experiment. In SPRUCE, the U.S. Forest Service partners with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a secure government research center that inspired the mysterious Hawkins Laboratory of the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” But on the day I was there it was too damn cold and windy to worry about Demogorgans.

Fortunately, at least in the moment, this experiment is all about a warming planet. Each semi-domed enclosure wraps around the common plant species of the surrounding bog, including trees, moss and grasses. Heaters and fans simulate the effects of climate change under different forecasting models. Pods run from 2.25 degrees Celsius above the outside temperature all the way to 9 degrees Celsius. Each pod explores a different climate change scenario.

Lead scientist Randy Kolka highlights the effects of climate change simulations on native vegetation at the U.S. Forest Service’s Marcell Experimental Forest.

Even before this experiment began, Kolka documented changes on this site over the past several decades. Winter low temperatures increased significantly. The Star Tribune reported last December how this propagates certain harmful insects and diseases that affect native forests. Kolka said fall and spring temperatures also rose, extending northern Minnesota’s growing season by three weeks. Recent research confirms these findings. More growing sounds great, but it also promotes “false springs,” where trees wake from their winter slumber too early and die from late frosts.

These measurable changes attracted scientists to the experimental forest. Siting began in 2009, with principle construction happening between 2014 and 2016. Kolka said the project adopted the name SPRUCE shortly thereafter to avoid the political connotations of the word “climate” during the Trump Administration. Nevertheless, the project’s findings are entirely about climate.

Many experiments are still ongoing, evaluating every imaginable aspect of the biome. But even a novice like myself could observe significant changes in the warmest of the pods.

The spruce trees hover near death. It’s hard to see new ones sprouting in the changing undergrowth. Shrubs thrive in the new environment, including blueberries and Labrador tea. But their success comes at the expense of lichens and sphagnum moss. Those are the species that capture and contain the most carbon from the atmosphere. Meantime, the rising temperatures observed in the waters below trigger chemical reactions that release methane into the air.

At 9 degrees celcius higher than current temperatures, northern Minnesota black spruce trees like these ones fail to thrive.

Kolka says the results clearly show that this future bog now produces carbon rather than capturing it. This will soon accelerate climate change in Minnesota.

Preparing for the inevitable

Psychologists observe how the climate crisis confounds our human nature. It boils too slowly for the broader population to perceive the risk, so we delay action. Meantime, subtle effects on wildlife slip into daily life, such as the avian flu that caused our recent spike in egg prices, or a January smog warning across much of the state. In “Fen, Bog and Swamp,” Proulx does not write optimistically about efforts to reverse climate change. It’s too late for that, she says.

“I used to think that stasis in the ‘natural’ world was possible and desirable,” Proulx writes, “but I have learned beliefs like the ‘balance of nature’ are point-in-time-defined fantasies.”

She instead concludes that it’s more important for humans to stop causing damage and to prepare for coming change.

When peatlands like those in northern Minnesota begin releasing their ancient carbon — and they soon will — there will be no going back. What can be preserved through conservation will become all the more important.

This change will cause conflict, and not just because of political differences. Entire paradigms will shift.

In 2019, Ed Nelson, secretary of the Arrowhead Regional Farm Bureau, called me about a problem vexing farmers like him in the rural communities near the Sax-Zim Bog. “Mr. Ed” runs one of the last horse-powered farms in the region. It has become a farm life field trip destination for kids and families. But now he was having trouble getting hay for his horses. Local fields that had produced hay for livestock since the early 1900s now flooded for much of the summer. Farmers who once produced two crops of hay each year could now barely produce one.

The reason was plain to see. Those judicial ditches dug a century ago had plugged up. Some investigation revealed that it was far more than just a lack of maintenance. A company blocked the ditches, creating “wetlands” contrivances, which they then sold as wetlands credits to big developers in other parts of the state. St. Louis County let it happen. No one told the farmers.

Mitigating damaged wetlands will take more than just policy. It will require community planning, compassion and respect for people whose lives will change as we adjust to this new age. Otherwise grifters, culture warriors and political squabbling will tear us apart.

At this point, if you still don’t believe that climate change is real, I’d suggest you redirect your anger at the people who sold you that line. A Jan. 12 Oliver Milman story in the Guardian revealed that company documents show Exxon Mobil scientists correctly forecasted human-caused climate change as early as the 1970s. Their predictions proved more accurate than even the government-sponsored science that came later. Exxon buried the report and — with the rest of the fossil fuel industry — spent untold fortunes convincing Americans that climate change wasn’t real.

If you remain unconvinced, know that our climate future is plainly visible in those sci-fi pods tucked into a bog in the Chippewa National Forest. If you can’t believe the politicians, believe your eyes.

Environmental conservation isn’t just a trend or even a defined set of policy objectives, it’s an unrelenting daily challenge that we humans will face the rest of our lives.


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