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Are extreme summers the new normal in Minnesota?

While we’re unlikely to see this year’s unique combination of heat, drought and pollution, we could see more frequent wildfires as the climate changes, experts say.

Haze from wildfires covers Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on July 29.
Haze from wildfires covers Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on July 29.
REUTERS/Shannon VanRaes

Minnesotans are just now emerging from a week that some have described as “apocalyptic.” When northern winds brought in gray skies full of pollution from Canadian wildfires, a drought and recurring high temperatures had already been plaguing most of the state.  

Lee Frelich
Lee Frelich
Lee Frelich, the director of forest ecology at the University of Minnesota, says the last time Minnesota experienced a summer so extreme was 1988. 

“That was pretty much like this summer that we’re having right now, and that was the first time I saw smoke in the air for several days,” Frelich said. But the smoke in 1988 had been coming from Yellowstone at a time when large wildfires weren’t as common in Canada, Frelich said.

“What we’re getting now is a result of the climate in central Canada and north of Minnesota changing,” Frelich said. “But that was the first taste, and I realized at that time that an average summer could be like the summer of ’88 or like this summer.”

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So what combination of factors led to this summer’s weather and what might we expect for the future?

No ‘observational evidence’ that this is a new normal

Kenneth Blumenfeld, a climatologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says that any anxiety from the past few weeks is normal. “There’s a whole psychology of how we perceive the weather in the climate that’s underlying all of this and the drought in particular,” Blumenfeld said. “It makes people feel anxious and impatient because you’re waiting for rain and it never rains. And it just makes you start to think, “Is it always going to be like this?”

Kenneth Blumenfeld
Kenneth Blumenfeld
Still he says that summers like this, with a combination of extreme heat, drought, and smoke from wildfires, are unlikely to become a recurring norm.

We’ve had rapid changes in our climate over the past several decades, and during that time summers like this have become less frequent,” Blumenfeld said. “If this kind of condition is going to become a “new normal” here in Minnesota, we currently have no observational evidence to support it. The modeling projections for our future suggest that these types of episodes will continue to be less common than they were historically, but they could become worse.”

State climatologists expect a drought to occur every so often, he said.

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“It’s the kind of drought that we expect in Minnesota every 10 to 20 years,” Blumenfeld said. “I think it’s natural for people to just jump to a comparison between what they’re seeing and, you know, these major historic droughts. We could end up with a major historic-level drought. But right now, this is just a good old fashioned, hard-hitting drought of the type that comes every decade or two in Minnesota.”

Extremely hot days in Minnesota are fairly rare. On average, temperatures will exceed 90 degrees for 13 days each year. But so far this year, the state has already experienced 22 days of plus-90-degree weather.

While the state is undoubtedly getting warmer, experts say that data suggests that rather than getting drier the state is actually getting wetter.

Tracy Twine
Tracy Twine
The main things in the future is that Minnesota is getting warmer and wetter and we’re warming faster than most other states in the nation because we’re farther north,” said Tracy Twine, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate. “One good thing is that we are further north and so unless we’re going through a drought like now, we should have plenty of water.”

Blumenfeld says much of the last decade has actually hit record high precipitation.

“The last decade was Minnesota’s wettest decade on record,” Blumenfeld said. “And that goes back, it’s over 120 years of record that we have consistently for the whole state. And you know, 2019 was Minnesota’s wettest year on record, and the period from about 2014 through 2019 was like none we’d ever seen.

Twine says the trifecta of extremes this year is a coincidence. 

“We just happened to have different things coinciding this summer in Minnesota where we have a drought and now we have wildfires in Canada. And when we get a wind from the north, it brings that smoke down to us,” Twine said.

And while Twine said Minnesotans might not need to worry about summers coupled with droughts and wildfires, wildfires alone may become a more common occurrence. Twine says there is some scientific evidence that with climate change and with the climate warming overall, that there’s greater risk of wildfires. 

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“That might be one thing that changes — that we might have more smoke from wildfires more frequently. And summers — definitely just having higher temperatures can cause some chemical reactions in the atmosphere that would lower the air quality.

In fact, Frelich says there has been an increase in wildfires in the past two decades. “We’ve seen a resurgence in fire, I’d say the last since the mid-1990s. So we had a period from 1910 to the 1990s with very little fire in northern Minnesota and now we’re seeing a resurgence of fire in northern Minnesota,” Frelich said. “And I think we could see fires as big as the historic ones that we had in the 1800s or even worse as climate change progresses.”

Minnesota has always had varied weather

Frelich says that even prior to the threat of climate change, Minnesota has always had an unpredictable climate because of its location in the middle of the continent.

“Being in a mid-continental location means that there are huge fluctuations in the weather, even in normal times. Huge droughts, huge heat waves, floods. It’s just an area that has extreme weather to begin with,” Frelich said. “And then you add in a changing climate, it’s even worse. So that’s kind of our lot in life because of where we are. Things are more stable near the ocean and at lower latitudes.”

Blumenfeld says that the state is often at the mercy of the conditions of the coasts and the north.

A hazy view of downtown Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
A hazy view of downtown Minneapolis from last Thursday.
We have weather systems that give us access to the Gulf of Mexico, the desert Southwest, the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian tundra and even Hudson Bay all the time,” Blumenfeld said. “And so we know that, you know, right now we’re in a pattern that’s giving us a lot of access to the West and the desert Southwest and so we’re really dry. But we had been in a pattern for years before this where we mostly were getting influenced by the Gulf of Mexico, so we were really wet.”

Prolonged heat waves, more warming in winter

Twine, whose department uses various climate models to project what the temperatures will look like in the future, says that there is evidence that climate change may lead to an additional 30 days of temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. But she stresses these days would prolong heat waves rather than adding additional heat waves.

“We might not get more heat waves, but the heat wave that we get, coupled with our climate change from global warming, might prolong that,” Twine said. “So rather than the heat wave that might have come for four days, maybe it would come for seven days now.

And while summers will continue to warm, it is Minnesota’s winters that will be more heavily affected, say Twine and Blumenfeld.