Tapping Trees: Climate Change Brings Challenges to the Maple Trees

Kaare Melby lives off-grid with his family near Finland, MN, several miles from the tumultuous shores of Lake Superior. Spring means tapping maple trees, boiling sap, and bottling rich, thick syrup–a food staple for their family.

Melby and his family practice a combination of agriculture and wildcrafting, synching with the signs of the season. “I try to follow the phenology rather than the calendar. You have to follow nature, and you have to know your environment well to do that. To become fluent in the cycles around you.”

The sap is running, and the syrup is boiling. But this year has been confusing. Here in northeastern Minnesota, winter never arrived. Temperatures soared into the 50s and 60s, and there’s been little snowfall. The few subzero nights registered did not exceed -20, an astounding statistic from a forest that regularly clocked nine -35 readings each winter, according to the National Weather Service.

“The chickadees started singing their ‘cheeseburger’ song about three weeks early,” Melby said, referring to the spring call of the Minnesota state bird. “That tells me to put in the taps. They know. They know when things are happening. I’m following.”

Dr. Peter B. Reich is the Director of the Institute for Global Change Biology at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability. He’s also watching the changes but with a wider lens.

“We know it’s bad, but how bad is hard to tell,” he said. “We know this weather is stressful, but we don’t have a recipe to tell us what’s too much.”

Trees are resilient, Reich explained, but the challenges are adding up. Drought and dry soil are one thing, and the drought is understandable. What is less knowable is how the trees fared without the protection of winter snow.

“In a normal winter, a blanket of snow keeps temps around 30 degrees at the trunk and roots. It’s a layer of insulation. Now the soil got much colder in that dry soil. That’s an added stressor.”

Melby and Reich both are concerned with the mismatched tree behavior. There are many weeks of spring, and maybe even winter, before summer officially arrives.

“Worst case scenario is that the trees leaf out and flower, and then we get a hard frost,” said Reich. “Or a week below freezing.”

On the Fond du Lac reservation, Ojibwe elders have advised that the trees go untapped this season. “They are tired,” one Facebook post said. Maple camp is a cultural cornerstone of Ojibwe life, and the food itself is central to their diet.

Melby is watching and learning. Last year there was record snowfall, a short spring, and a leap into a dry summer. This year, no snowfall, and a spring that is starting weeks ahead of any recorded weather history.

“I’m paying attention to what the trees are telling me,” said Melby. “That’s what I’ve been taught.”

“We simply don’t know. We’ve never seen this sort of weather affecting the maples,” said Reich. “To me, that’s the real issue.”