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Nowhere is safe from climate change impacts — for birds or people

Nowhere is safe from climate change impacts — for birds or people
The Spruce Grouse lost a prime wintering site to a wildfire this summer within Superior National Forest north of Duluth. Photo by Carrie Olson/Shutterstock

As record-breaking temperatures, droughts, fires, and hurricanes ravage so much of the continent in 2021, some news outlets have published stories about the best places to take refuge from climate change. Virtually all list Minnesota, and several mention Duluth, where I live.

Like many places, Duluth had our hottest ever meteorological summer (June-July) this year. The hottest temperature on record for Duluth, set in 1930, remains 97°F. But so many days in the 80s and 90s damage northern ecosystems. The heat combined with a severe drought killed many birches and conifers outright and contributed to the devastation of the Greenwood fire, which destroyed one of the best winter birding spots for Spruce Grouse in the state. These gorgeous but elusive birds need mature spruce forests, so it may be more than a generation before the habitat supports them again, assuming spruces regenerate in this warmer climate.

Smoke from this and larger fires to the north and west made Duluth’s air quality dangerous; many days we were warned to stay indoors with air filters running. Wild birds don’t have that option.

No matter how hard we individuals try to keep our carbon footprint low, it’s hard not to despair looking at the enormity of the problem.

That’s one reason many Minnesotans have been protesting construction of an oil pipeline by a Canadian corporation, Enbridge, to replace its Line 3 pipeline, which runs from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. Operating since 1968, the existing pipeline has leaked dozens of times, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil in Minnesota alone. In 1991, a seam rupture spilled 1.7 million gallons of crude oil into the Prairie River, a tributary of the Mississippi, near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It remains the largest inland oil spill in United States history.

The replacement pipeline would be significantly larger than the current Line 3 and would carry tar sands oil. The Minnesota Department of Commerce and groups like the Sierra Club oppose construction because of deforestation along the pipeline route, the generation of massive amounts of greenhouse gases during construction, and of course, the potential for spills. The existing pipeline provides only a limited benefit to Minnesota refineries, and construction of a replacement isn’t expected to provide many jobs, virtually all temporary. Minnesotans also question what will happen to the old, decommissioned pipeline. The planned rerouting runs through Ojibwe reservations and land ceded to the U.S. via treaties, disrupting important sites including burial grounds. The pipeline also threatens Ojibwe land-use rights to hunting, fishing, and harvesting wild rice.

Why must we increase the capacity to transport oil when we so desperately must slow down our use of fossil fuels? I don’t know how this situation will resolve, but my summer of staying indoors to elude the sweltering heat and smoke-filled air while holding my baby grandson at the window to watch chickadees in the toxic haze has made me more desperate than ever to see serious progress. If not now, when?

This article will be published in the “Attracting Birds” column in the November/December 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Read why fossil fuel pipelines are bad for the climate and our communities

Learn about efforts to stop Line 3

How to help birds during heat waves and droughts

How to help birds and wildlife rehabilitators in the wake of Hurricane Ida

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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