The climate it is a-changin’

Photo by John Harrington
Split Rock Lighthouse

Have you heard Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald with its reference to “the gales of November came early? I was thinking of that today when we visited the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. They have an exhibit on the construction of the Split Rock Lighthouse. “Shipwrecks from a mighty 1905 November gale prompted this rugged landmark’s construction.” That storm came on November 28, definitely not early.

I’ve been (belatedly) reading Bill McKibbon’s “eaarth” the past few days. One of his major points is that the old earth we knew, which offered a sense of stability and, in general, predictability, is gone, even if we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions starting now. A topic I haven’t seen written about (but neither have I looked hard for it) is the effect of increased volatility of weather and water levels on Great Lakes shipping. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975, which wasn’t all that long ago. Thewater levels in the Great Lakes are being affected by global warming. 

“There has been a significant decrease in ice cover in the Great Lakes. The loss of Great Lakes ice has allowed more water to evaporate in winter, resulting in heavier lake effect snow near the shore, and lower lake levels. Overall, the Great Lakes have lost 71% of their ice cover since 1973, according to a study by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL). Lake Ontario saw an 88% decline in ice cover, Superior lost 79% of its ice, Michigan lost 77%, Huron lost 62%, and Erie lost 50%. The loss of ice is due to increasing air and water temperatures.”

How early can the gales of November arrive, and does it make a difference? Since the Iron Range has historically shipped its ore over (through?) the lakes (another exhibit at the History Center), I wonder if global warming is going to affect the viability of taconite mining. There also could be a question about whether the volatility of storm’s frequency and intensity will affect the cost and availability of insurance for the ships used to transport the ore. This is just one set of questions that comes to mind regarding how Minnesota will need to look at options and issues as we begin to adapt to global warming. Most of the emphasis I’ve seen so far has been on the impact to farming and forestry. Those are the obvious considerations, but the more we look at the systems we’ve come to depend on, the more we need to look at alternatives, robustness, resilience and replacement.

This post was written by John Harrington and originally published on My Minnesota. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnHthePoet.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/30/2014 - 11:28 am.

    Your 2009 report is a little out of date

    2009: “There has been a significant decrease in ice cover in the Great Lakes.”

    March 5, 2014: “Over 90% of the Great Lakes are frozen solid, the highest level in 35 years”

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/03/03/great-lakes-ice-coverage-record/5980063/

    June 28, 2014: “Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior are at least a foot higher than they were a year ago, and are expected to rise three more inches over the next month. Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are seven to nine inches higher than a year ago”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/us/creeping-up-on-unsuspecting-shores-the-great-lakes-in-a-welcome-turnaround.html

    Good news, wouldn’t you say?

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 06/30/2014 - 01:56 pm.

      Sure it’s good news,

      but it does in no way change the fact of a warming Minnesota. Remember, one year does not a trend make – unless of course you don’t believe in science, then well, maybe looking out the window forms your worldview.

      Lake Superior freezes like it did this year about every 20 years, so this last winter was not unusual with regard to ice cover.

      Since the watershed for Superior is small (surprisingly so for the size of the lake), it barely replaces water lost to evaporation, so any warming at all will change the way the lake replenishes itself. And since the weather is getting warmer, lots of evidence for that, this large body of water will also warm. It comes down to albedo, and water has a very low albedo rating, Warm temps, lots more evaporation (maybe the deniers don’t believe in evaporation too). More water in the atmosphere warms the water, and on and on.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/30/2014 - 03:59 pm.

      More News

      Once again, the world outside your window is not the entire world. And before you ask, neither is the eastern U.S. While we were experiencing cold weather, Alaska and large swaths of Scandinavia and Russia had record warm weather. So there’s some data to give you a little context.

      Also one data point does not a trend make. Focusing on this past winters simply ignores the winters for the previous thirty years that have continually been trending warmer. I remember winters in the late ’70s and early ’80s that would make this past January seem perfectly normal, but these days it’s considered unusual.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/30/2014 - 12:10 pm.

    There you go again…

    So if you repeat this “stuff” often enough, is it more likely to be believed?

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 07/01/2014 - 01:01 pm.

    Then there was July

    of 1936, the warmest July in recorded history. The Twin Cities was like Phoenix with several consecutive days with temps over 100. As Warren Buffett notes, there is no increase in casualty insurance rates today because there has been no increase in unusual weather events.

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