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Climate change comes to Minnesota: Three experts outline the impacts

Among Minnesota effects: The highest heat index on the entire planet for July 19, 2011, was recorded at … Moorhead.

"Climate Change: Right Here, Right Now," a special public-affairs event, was presented by MinnPost's Earth Journal Circle and held at Hell's Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Ashleigh Swenson

So, how is all this climate change we hear about showing up in Minnesota?

  • Three  “1,000-year floods” have occurred in our state in the last eight years — September 2004, August 2007 and September 2010, all in southeastern Minnesota. (Note that this millennial ranking excludes such other extreme events as the Duluth floods of last June.)
  • Shifts in rainfall patterns toward the extremes resulted in flood-related disaster declarations in 11 counties last summer simultaneous with drought-disaster declarations across much of the state. Such dual declarations have occurred only one other time in Minnesota history — in 2007.
  • Rising levels of water vapor in the warming atmosphere are pushing summertime dewpoints more frequently to levels typical of, say, Cancun.
  • As a result, high heat-index readings and associated health warnings are being driven less by absolute temperature, more by extreme humidity. For example, the highest heat index on the entire planet for July 19, 2011, was recorded at … Moorhead.

These are but a small handful of examples from a large collection assembled by climatologist Mark Seeley, a longtime professor at the U of M, well-known commentator on MPR and, increasingly, expert witness at legislative hearings on the fix we’re in.

Climatology in demand

Lawmakers have invited him to five hearings so far in this year’s young session, but he was only able to accept for three — the other two, he told me, conflicted with previous engagements to educate ag and industry groups.

As the subject of changing-climate impacts gathers more urgency, Seeley and his data are much in demand. And on Monday evening he was the opening panelist for Climate Change: Right Here, Right Now, a special public-affairs event presented by MinnPost’s Earth Journal Circle at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis.

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Joining Seeley onstage were Lee Frelich, a towering redwood among the U’s forestry experts, to discuss climate change’s impact on Minnesota’s woodlands, and J. Drake Hamilton, longtime science policy specialist at Fresh Energy, to talk about how climate issues are shaping Minnesota’s “policy landscape.”

A rapt audience of more than 100 made clear with their audible reactions, their questions for the panel and their comments after adjournment that the trio made strong impressions even on listeners who have been following climate news, science and policy quite closely.

Disappearing forests

The gasps that greeted Seeley’s chronicle of recent severe-weather extremes turned to groans of sadness as Frelich mapped current and future changes in Minnesota’s much-loved woodlands.

Large-scale forest diebacks, like those that afflicted large birch stands along the North Shore two summers ago, will surely continue, Frelich said. Drought conditions that caused massive mortality in aspen forests of southern Canada are certainly possible. And the bark beetles that have afflicted enormous swaths of lodgepole and other pines all over the Rockies are headed this way.

Eventually the canoe country forests of spruce, fir and jack pine will yield to red maples and hardwoods where soils are deep enough, and savannahs of grassland and oak where the soil is shallow and sandy.

It’s possible, Frelich said, that before the end of this century the border between prairie and what we now think of as the north woods may shift northward  by as much as 300 miles in Minnesota and other states at our latitude. That would mean deforestation of a zone twice the size of California.

Hope for energy policies

Hamilton provided the evening’s most hopeful notes, pointing out that the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 laid a strong foundation for advancing Minnesota’s investment in renewable energy sources and continuing to reduce the role of coal in powering our homes and businesses.

She finds Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for action in his State of the State address even more ambitious than President Barack Obama’s in his State of the Union.

As she tours the state, speaking to college assemblies and church groups, Hamilton is finding that policies which have made Minnesota fourth in the nation in wind power per capita — a new statistic to me and others at this event —have also shown citizens that renewables can be a source not just of clean electricity but of good jobs, lease payments to farmers and tax revenue to the state.

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All of which, she said, may make 2013 the year of opportunity for a significant state advance in solar energy as well.

Presentations available online

I’m happy to report that all three speakers agreed to posting of the slides from their presentations:

Because Seeley’s assessment of here-and-now climate impacts and their implications is difficult to condense, and well worth your time, I’m also happy to provide links to some of his recent legislative testimony here and here.)

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(Disclosures: Since November, support from members of the Earth Journal Circle has made it possible for MinnPost to expand and extend this blog’s coverage of environmental subjects, for which I am thankful. I recruited the speakers for Monday’s event and served as a minimalist kind of moderator, striving to add as few words of my own as possible.

(J. Drake Hamilton was a valued colleague during my two-year stint at Fresh Energy and Lee Frelich was an occasional adviser when I worked at Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. I’d never met Mark Seeley before Monday night — and it was a thrill because I’ve long envied his ability to render the complexities of climate and weather systems in clear, compelling terms.)