Part 1: Hotter and wetter — Minnesota’s changing climate

Around the world, extreme weather events and rising temperatures point to a changing climate. Storms and floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, heat waves, droughts and fires have all increased in number, intensity and duration.  

Globally, floods and extreme rainfall now occur four times more often than in 1980. This summer, all-time temperature records were shattered in Europe (Germany, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic), and life-threatening heat plagued India, Japan and the Middle East. 

Residents of landlocked, moderate-latitude Minnesota tend to feel shielded from such “worst events.” However, as retired University of Minnesota meteorologist Mark Seeley stated, “Every incremental change we look at in the global record translates into a very highly amplified change in our Minnesota backyard.” 

The changing Midwestern climate was one theme of a “Climate Reality Project” leadership training session, held at the Minneapolis Convention Center on August 2-4. The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit organization founded by former vice president Al Gore, has as its mission “catalyzing a global solution to the climate crisis by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and speeding the shift to renewables.” 

Some 1,200 participants from 30 countries attended the training, and 300 of them were Minnesotans—many of whom learned “startling” new information about Minnesota weather trends and projections.  

For example, Minneapolis is second only to New Orleans as the city most impacted by climate change, stated Mayor Jacob Frey, who appeared on a panel with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. (This finding comes from a study of America’s 60 largest cities, conducted by Climate Central.) Despite its distance from rising sea levels, Minnesota is highly vulnerable to severe storms, flooding, extreme heat, and drought. The state has been the site of three disaster declarations (one federal and two state) so far this year, due to heavy snow and rainstorms, flooding, high winds, and tornadoes. 

Heavy precipitation events now occur here 2-3 times more often than in the 20th century. Three Minnesota locations set statewide annual rainfall records in 2018. Harmony, Minnesota came in highest at 60.21 inches. (75 inches of rain per year categorizes a forest as a rainforest.) The rate of precipitation across the state has increased by about one-half inch per decade over the last 50 years, and now averages about 32 inches per year. 

And it’s not just rain, it’s “rain bombs,” like the one earlier this summer which flooded Minneapolis streets. These microbursts are said to be due to the disruption of the water cycle: More water evaporates as oceans warm, and warmer air absorbs more and more moisture to the point where water release becomes torrential.   

In the next 50 years, Minnesota is projected to experience 30 more days with temperatures above 90 degrees F, and 30 fewer days with temperatures below freezing, on average. 

Minnesota winters are warming 13 times faster than summers. These warmer winters result in snow melting so fast, sometimes within 24 hours, that urban sewer systems can’t handle the water. 

With heavy snow and rain comes flooding. This spring, St. Paul saw its longest flood event in Mississippi history (42 straight days). And in addition to “riverine” flooding, “overland” flooding of saturated fields occurs with increasing frequency and scale in Minnesota. 

Over the last 50 years, Minnesota has warmed the equivalent of 5 degrees F per century. Five degrees F equals 2.8 degrees C, well above the 2C maximum warming (above preindustrial levels) set by the Paris Climate Accord in 2016, and the 1.5C (3.6F) uppermost limit urged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018. Overall, the world’s temperature is currently 1C warmer than preindustrial levels but is poised to rise fast unless emissions are curtailed.

This article is the first of a series of five, each based on Scandia resident Rita Erickson’s participation in the Climate Reality Project training. The second will consider “homegrown climate solutions” — initiatives from government, corporations, and communities that have poised Minnesota to become a national leader in mitigating climate change.

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