A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
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A new paper explores how noise from human activities pollutes the oceans, and what we can do to fix it.
- The new paper notes three major factors that have changed the ocean soundscape: human activity, climate change, and "massive declines in the abundance of sound-producing animals."
- Noise pollution threatens marine animals because many rely on sound to communicate with each other and sense predators and prey.
- The paper noted several solutions for decreasing human-caused noise pollution, including floating wind turbines and quieter boat propellers.
From shrimp to whales, marine animals use sound to communicate with each other and interpret their underwater environment. But since the Industrial Revolution, noise from human activity has been polluting the ocean soundscape, stressing animals and disrupting their behaviors.
A new paper published in the journal Science examined thousands of prior studies on how noise pollution has been impacting marine life, and it offered solutions for how humans could quiet their impact on the ocean soundscape. According to the paper, Earth's marine animals are living in the Anthropocene ocean, a geological term used to describe the planet's current period in which humans have a dominant influence on the environment.
Duarte et al.
The illustrations from top to bottom show ocean soundscapes from before the industrial revolution that were largely composed of sounds from geological (geophony) and biological sources (biophony), with minor contributions from human sources (anthrophony), to the present Anthropocene oceans, where anthropogenic noise and reduced biophony owing to the depleted abundance of marine animals and healthy habitats have led to impacts on marine animals
"Ocean soundscapes are rapidly changing because of massive declines in the abundance of sound-producing animals, increases in anthropogenic noise, and altered contributions of geophysical sources, such as sea ice and storms, owing to climate change," the authors wrote. "As a result, the soundscape of the Anthropocene ocean is fundamentally different from that of preindustrial times, with anthropogenic noise negatively impacting marine life."
Humans pump noise into the ocean in many ways, including sounds from shipping and fishing vessels, sonar devices, oil drilling, construction, acoustic deterrents, warfare and sea-bed mining. Noise pollution can span great distances in some cases. For example, the U.S. Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar system, used to detect submarines, reaches over 1,505,800 square-miles.
Noise pollution not only stresses marine animals, but also hinders their ability to sense prey and predators, and connect with their family members and groups. For example, species like bluefish tuna rely on sound to communicate with each other, and research has shown that noise from boats disrupts their schooling structure, making it harder for them to migrate to spawning and feeding grounds.
But direct human activity isn't the only thing changing the ocean soundscape. The paper noted that human-caused climate change is "affecting geophony (abiotic, natural sounds)," such as noise caused by waves and melting ice. Taken together, there's clear evidence that noise pollution is disrupting marine life, though "there is lower confidence that anthropogenic noise increases the mortality of marine animals and the settlement of their larvae," the authors wrote.
Solutions for ocean noise pollution
While noise pollution poses serious threats to marine life, it's also a relatively easy thing to reverse. After all, noises can be eliminated almost immediately, unlike climate change or the trillions of pieces of plastic and garbage that litter the oceans.
The authors of the recent paper noted several strategies that could alleviate ocean noise pollution, including floating wind turbines, quieter boat propellers, decreased shipping traffic, and seafloor-based seismic survey technology. Some solutions may soon become cost effective, while others would likely require new policies. Currently, there are no international laws restricting ocean noise pollution.
"Existing evidence shows that anthrophony affects marine animals at multiple levels, including their behavior, physiology, and, in extreme cases, survival," the authors wrote. "This should prompt management actions to deploy existing solutions to reduce noise levels in the ocean, thereby allowing marine animals to reestablish their use of ocean sound as a central ecological trait in a healthy ocean."
To help quiet the oceans and curb greenhouse gas emissions, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) suggests enforcing speed limits on ships.
"The most effective solution that we advocate is to implement speed restrictions for ships because this not only reduces ocean noise, but also minimizes gas emission and ship strikes," IFAW wrote in 2020.
In a joint briefing at the 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, NASA and NOAA revealed 2020's scorching climate data.
You may have noticed a trend in the last few years. At the beginning of every year, NASA and NOAA share their analyses of the previous year's climate data. And every year, their data reveal the previous year to be one of the hottest on record—with 2016 at the torrid top of 139 years of documentation. That's no coincidence. Climate change is happening, it's happening now, and it's human-caused.
That's the consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists, according to a 2014 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That's the same percentage of physicians and cardiovascular scientists who agree that smoking causes lung cancer, and it's a consensus reached through decades worth of surveys and studies into the realities and causes of climate change.
Now, climate scientists have two more analyses to add to their overwhelming evidence. In a briefing at this year's 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, representatives for NASA and NOAA revealed their independent analyses of 2020's climate data. And the trend continues.
A dead heat
A graph showing the global mean temperatures from 1880–2020 (with the years 1951–1980 serving as the mean baseline).
Credit: NASA and NOAA
For its 2020 analysis, NASA gathered surface temperature measurements from more than 26,000 weather stations. This data was incorporated with data from satellites as well as sea-surface temperatures taken from ship and buoy instruments. Once tallied, NASA's data showed 2020 barely edged out 2016 as the warmest year on record, with average global temperatures 1.02°C (1.84°F) above the baseline mean (1951-1980).
In a separate analysis of the raw data, NOAA found 2020 to be slightly cooler than 2016. This distinction is the result of the different methodologies used in each—for example, NOAA uses a different baseline period (1901–2000) and does not infer temperatures in polar regions lacking observations. Together, these analyses put 2020 in a statistical dead heat with the sweltering 2016 and demonstrate the global-warming trend of the past four decades.
"The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend," Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a release. "Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important—the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken."
And they are. According to the analyses, 2020 was the warmest year on record for Asia and Europe, the second warmest for South America, the fourth warmest for Africa and Australia, and the tenth warmest for North America.
All told, 2020 was 1.19°C (2.14°F) above averages from the late-19th century, a period that provides a rough approximate for pre-industrial conditions. This temperature is closing in on the Paris Climate Agreement's preferred goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C of those pre-industrial conditions.
2020's hotspot was—the Arctic?
A map of global mean temperatures in 2020 shows an scorching year for the Arctic.
(Photo: NASA and NOAA)
Heatwaves have become more common all over the world, but a region that really endured the heat in 2020 was the Arctic.
"The big story this year is Siberia; it was a hotspot," Russell Vose, chief of the analysis and synthesis branch of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, said during the briefing. "In May, some places were 18°F above the average. There was a town in Siberia […] that reported a high temperature of 104°F. If that gets verified by the World Metrological Organization, it will the first there's been a weather station in the Arctic with a temperature above 100°F."
The Arctic is warming at three times the global mean, thanks to a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification. As the Arctic warms, it loses its sea ice, and this creates a feedback loop. The more Arctic sea ice loss, the more heat introduced into the oceans; the more heat introduced, the more sea ice loss. And the longer this trend continues, the more devastating the effects.
For example, since the 1980s, there's been a 50 percent decline in sea ice, and this loss has exposed more of the ocean to the sun's rays. That energy then gets trapped in the ocean as heat. As the ocean heat content rises, it threatens rising sea levels and the sustainability of natural ecosystems. In 2020 alone, 255 zeta joules of heat above the baseline were introduced into Earth's oceans. In (admittedly) dramatic terms, that's the equivalent of introducing 5 to 6 Hiroshima atom bombs worth of energy every second of every day.
Looking beyond the Arctic, the average snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere was also the lowest on record. Like the Arctic sea ices, such snow cover helps regulate Earth's surface temperatures. Its melt off in the spring and summer also provides the freshwater ecosystems rely on to survive and farmers need to grow crops, especially in the Western United States.
Natural disasters get a man-made bump
A map of 2020's billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, which totaled approximately $95 billion in losses.
Credit: NASA and NOAA
2020 was also a record-breaking year for natural disasters. In the U.S. alone, there were 22 billion-dollar disasters, the most ever recorded. Combined, they resulted in a total of $95 billion in losses. The western wildfires alone consumed more than 10 million acres and destroyed large portions of Oregon, Colorado, and California.
The year also witnessed a record-setting Atlantic Hurricane season with more than 30 named storms, 13 of which were hurricanes. Typically, the World Meteorological Organization names storms from an annual list of 21 selected names—one for each letter of the alphabet, minus Q, U, X, Y, and Z. For only the second time in history, the Organization had to resort to naming storms after Greek letters because they ran out of alphabet.
For the record, there's a consensus about the record
Such records are a dramatic reminder of climate change's ongoing effect on our planet. They make for an eye-catching headline, sure. But those headlines can sometimes mask the fact that these years are part of decade-long trends, trends providing a preview of what a climate-changed world will be like.
And in case there was any question as to whether these trends were the result of natural processes or man-made conditions, Schmidt and Vose did not mince words.
As Schmidt said in the briefing: "Many, many things have caused the climate to change in the past: asteroids, wobbles in the Earth's orbit, moving continents. But when we look at the 20th century, we can see very clearly what has been happening. We know the continents have not moved very much, we know the orbit has not changed very much, we know when there were volcanoes, we know what the sun is doing, and we know what we've been doing."
He continued, "When we do an attribution by driver of climate change over the 20th century, what we find is that the overwhelming cause of the warming is the increase of greenhouse gases. When you add in all of the things humans have done, all of the trends over this period are attributable to human activity."
The data are in; the consensus is in. The only thing left is to figure out how to prevent the worst of climate change before it's too late. As bad as 2020 was, it was only a preview of what could come.
Researchers document the first example of evolutionary changes in a plant in response to humans.
- A plant coveted in China for its medicinal properties has developed camouflage that makes it less likely to be spotted and pulled up from the ground.
- In areas where the plant isn't often picked, it's bright green. In harvested areas, it's now a gray that blends into its rocky surroundings.
- Herbalists in China have been picking the Fritillaria dealvayi plant for 2,000 years.
There are a growing number of examples of animals' evolutionary path diverting around humans and human encroachment. From the increase of tuskless elephants to changing fox snouts, this biological trend, though worrying, is well-documented. Now researchers in China have discovered a wildly growing plant that has adapted by developing camouflage that makes it less likely to get picked by human hands. Nobody likes us.
The study was conducted by botanist Yang Niu of the Kunming Institute of Botany in China, in collaboration with sensory ecologist Martin Stevens of the University of Exeter in England. "It's remarkable to see how humans can have such a direct and dramatic impact on the coloration of wild organisms, not just on their survival but on their evolution itself," Stevens tells University of Exeter News.
The research is published in Current Biology.
The plant is Fritillaria dealvayi, and its bulbs are harvested by Chinese herbalists, who grind it into a powder that treats coughs. The cough powder sells for the equivalent of $480 per kilogram, with a kilogram requiring the grinding up of about 3,500 bulbs. The plant is found in the loose rock fields lining the slopes of the Himalayan and Hengduan mountains in southwestern China.
As a perennial that produces just a single flower each year after its fifth season, it seems Fritillaria used to be easier to find. In some places its presence is betrayed by bright green leaves that stand out against the rocks among which which it grows. In other places, however, its leaves and stems are gray and blend in with the rocks. What's fascinating is that the bright green leaves are visible in areas in which Fritillaria is relatively undisturbed by humans while the gray leaves are (just barely) visible in heavily harvested areas. Same plant, two different appearances.
2/2: The picture on the left shows a Fritillaria delavayi in populations with high harvest pressure, and the one on… https://t.co/oriBNZGcsV— University of Exeter News (@University of Exeter News)1605891854.0
How we know we're the cause
There are other camouflaging plants, but the manner in which Fritillaria has developed this trait strongly suggests that it's a defensive response to being picked. "Many plants seem to use camouflage to hide from herbivores that may eat them — but here we see camouflage evolving in response to human collectors."
"Like other camouflaged plants we have studied," Niu says, " we thought the evolution of camouflage of this fritillary had been driven by herbivores, but we didn't find such animals." His close examination of Fritillaria leaves revealed no bite marks or other signs of non-human predation. "Then we realized humans could be the reason."
In any event, says Professor Hang Sun the Kunming Institute, "Commercial harvesting is a much stronger selection pressure than many pressures in nature."
Credit: maron/Adobe Stock
Since herbalists have been plucking Fritillaria from the rocks for 2,000 years, one might hope a record would exist that could allow researchers to identify areas in which the plant has been most thoroughly picked. There is no such documentation, but Liu and Stevens were able to acquire this type of information for five years (2014–2019), tracking the harvests at seven Fritillaria study sites. This allowed them to identify those areas in which the plant was most heavily harvested. These also turned out to be the locations with the gray-leaf variant of Fritillaria.
Further supporting the scientists' conclusion that gray Fritillaria was more likely to evade human hands and live long enough to reproduce was that participants in virtual plant-identification tests confirmed the species was hard to spot in the wild.
"It's possible that humans have driven evolution of defensive strategies in other plant species, but surprisingly little research has examined this," Stevens notes.
Hang Sun says such studies make clear that humans have become drivers of evolution on our planet: "The current biodiversity status on the earth is shaped by both nature and by ourselves."
The complacent majority needs to step up and call for action on climate change.
- Climate change is often framed as a debate that has split society down the middle and that requires more evidence before we can act. In reality, 97 percent of scientists agree that it is real and only 3 percent are skeptical. A sticking point for some is the estimated timeline, but as Columbia University professor Philip Kitcher points out, a 4-5 Celsius temperature increase that makes the planet uninhabitable is a disaster no matter when it happens.
- In this video, 9 experts (including professors, astronomers, authors, and historians) explain what climate change looks like, how humans have already and are continuing to contribute to it, how and why it has become politicized, and what needs to happen moving forward for real progress to be made.
- David Wallace-Wells, journalist and New America Foundation National Fellow, says that the main goal of climate action is not to win over the skeptical minority, but to "make those people who are concerned but still fundamentally complacent about the issue to be really engaged in a way that they prioritize climate change in their politics and their voting and make sure that our leaders think of climate change as a first-order political priority."