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Minnesota second most-affected state in U.S. for climate change

Climatologist Mark Seeley, shows the crowd attending the Climate Minnesota event Monday how winter minimum temperatures have been increasing over the past century. The event drew in advocates for action on the issue of climate change. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Paula Quam

Things are literally heating up in our neck of the woods - that's according to climate experts with a group called Climate Minnesota. The advocacy group for action on climate change convened at the Holiday Inn in Detroit Lakes Monday for one of its 12 events designed to gather state and local experts on the issue.

The message they had for the audience Monday was clear.

"The data, year by year, decade by decade, are screaming," said Mark Seeley, a climatologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, who has been analyzing climate data for 40 years. "This is a different environment. This is different than we've measured, and we'd better find ways to adjust to it."

Seeley presented this data, collected in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which showed significant climate changes in Minnesota in terms of increases in average temperatures, moisture and severe storms.

In fact, he said Minnesota had the most significant changes in the country next to Alaska.

"You happen to live here in northwestern Minnesota, where we're seeing your minimum winter temperatures rise at a pace of change that equates to five degrees per century - which is a pretty steep change," said Seeley, who says the average winter low increase in Minnesota is around 2 percent.

Seely says Minnesota is famous for its highly variable weather, which presents a challenge to climatologists looking for things "out of the norm," however, he also says data collected over the past century is indicating something other than our "normal variable."

"We've broken over 16,000 daily climate records on the Minnesota landscape in the last 10 years; we've also set over 140 all time state records," said Seely. "This is a phenomenal rate of change."

This year alone two records were shattered when Luverne, Minn., hit 84 degrees on April Fools Day and Sabin, Minn., hit 97 degrees on Oct. 11.

Seely also showed the audience graphs that indicated significant increases over the past several decades in the amount of water vapor in the air, which has "dramatically increased" the amount of heat advisories issued by the National Weather Service.

Dewpoints as high as 80 were not observed in our climate history until the summer of 1983, said Seely, "but since then, it's been pretty common."

A hot and steamy day in Moorhead on July 19, 2011, raised a few eyebrows when it took the nation's all-time heat index record of 95 degrees and a dew point of 89, which gave it a heat index of 132 degrees.

"The people in Moorhead were experiencing the equivalent of what it feels like to walk into a sauna," said Seely, who says that national record beat out Furnace Creek in California's Death Valley.

Minnesota also surprised climatologists in 2010 when it led the nation in tornadoes for the first time.

Seely's data also showed a 20 percent increase in precipitation for the Red River Valley, compared to 1921-1950 when it averaged 22.91 inches. It now sits at a more recent average of 27.46 inches of annual precipitation (information gathered from 1981-2010).

There are also more intense thunderstorms now, said Seely, who says the number of thunderstorms with two-inch rainfalls has doubled in frequency over "our lifetime" in the region.

Mega-rain events (which include at least 1,000 square miles of the landscape encompassed by a six-inch thunderstorm rainfall that peaks eight inches or more) are also becoming more common in Minnesota, according to Seely. He says in the first 140 years of landscape history, there were seven of these rain events documented. Since the new millennium, the area has already experienced five of them.

"So this is a disturbing change in frequency of storms of this magnitude," said Seely.

So what?

What effect could climate change have on northwest Minnesota? Experts in wildlife, economic development, agriculture and beyond say it isn't a matter of "could" it affect life in Minnesota; some say it already has.

"I study cold water fish," said Research Scientist Peter Jacobson, who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "As you can imagine, this set of fish will take the brunt of the effects of climate change in this region, and they already are."

Jacobson says one fish study shows that cisco (also known as tullibees or herring) are declining in numbers statewide. Cisco are what fish like northern pike and walleye feed on and is a critical resource to keep those prize fish in stock.

"When we started seeing this decline, we started to look into why," said Jacobson, who says DNR officials looked at a graph from the state climatology office, and that gave them their number one suspect.

"We noticed right away that there was a very major breakpoint in Minnesota's climate in the late '70s and early '80s that occurred almost at the same exact time we started seeing a decline in cold water fish," said Jacobson. "So we think there is a real strong impact of climate on a really important cold water fish in our lakes."

Jacobson, calling that "the bad news," says the good news is there are some lakes in Minnesota that are so deep and cold that they will not be impacted by climate change.

"The key will be to protect the water quality in those lakes," said Jacobson.

Representatives from Climate Minnesota say they aren't just about pointing out the problem at hand; the idea for events like these is to bring people together to discuss solutions.

Wadena County farmer Kent Solberg hopes he can plant a seed of hope into the problem.

The Sustainable Farming Association member spoke to the crowd about holistic farming for healthy soil. His goal is to improve soil health, water quality and boost farm profitability through a natural process, including photosynthesis.

"To take carbon in the atmosphere and convert it to carbon in the soil, because that's the driver of our soil productivity and ultimately farm profitability," said Solberg, who says they do that through high density grazing, very diverse crop and pasture systems and complex cover crops, to name a few.

The conversation

Experts and concerned citizens broke off into discussion groups following the data presentations with the idea of generating solutions to getting ahead of the problems that climate change can cause.

"The management of our natural resources, (our soils, our forests, our waters) and the management of our infrastructure (our fresh water supply system, our electric utility grid, our transportation system our public health system) are conditioned on adjusting for climate behavior that we've been doing for 200 years," said Seely. "And now that climate behavior is changing, so if we want to keep managing effectively and in a sustainable way, the natural resources and the infrastructure that supports our quality of life, we absolutely have to adapt that management to the different climate behaviors."

Becker County Economic Development Coordinator Guy Fisher talked about one such shift in management that could be coming down the pike for the cities of Frazee and Audubon.

"They are in the midst of conducting an assessment to determine the feasibility of developing a wind-solar hybrid project," said Fisher. Two large, turbines and a "football field worth of solar panels" would cost both of the cities $10 million for each project.

"If these projects get the green light from the study and the communities say 'yes' to developing them, then these cities can generate clean, green energy and distribute it into the local electrical grid," said Fisher. "Their profit is pumped back into their communities and provides some resiliency and leverage for helping them create a future they want for the next 20 years and beyond."

Now, Climate Minnesota members say it's time to get the word out about the severity of the issue and bring new ideas to all levels of government in order to generate a change in policy.

"Climate change is really one of the most daunting challenges of our time, and the complicated, politically charged nature of it has made it really difficult for people to come together and talk about it," said Kristin Poppleton, director of education for Climate Minnesota. "It's happening in our forests, our farm fields, our snowmobile trails, our ice fishing holes, our electric bills for summer cooling, but we're also hearing from people on things that we can do."

Paula Quam

Paula Quam is the editor for Forum Communications Co. newspapers in Detroit Lakes and Perham, both in Minnesota.

(218) 844-1466
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