How climate change is affecting winter in Minnesota

Heavy snow in parts of the Twin Cities metro area
Sean Vangert shovels his driveway in Woodbury, Minn., on Dec. 11. Weather spotters reported 20 inches of snow in Woodbury from the first winter storm of the season. With warming global temperatures Minnesota still gets heavy snow, but it doesn't stick around as long.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Climate change is reshaping Minnesota's winter. Change is evident in the state’s ecosystem, its economy and its collective identity, a climatologist and a climate researcher discussed on MPR News with Angela Davis Tuesday.

Average winter temperatures have risen 5 degrees in 50 years in the state, and while last week’s wacky winter weather — when at least 16 tornadoes touched down for the first time in the state’s history — is tied to the warming of the planet, it is likely an anomaly, they said. 

“I think that the real lesson is that now this has happened, we can't go back to believing this kind of thing can’t happen,’’ said Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “I think it's a stretch to say it's going to be common.”

But he and Heidi Roop, the director of the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership and an assistant professor of climate science at the University of Minnesota, said the Dec. 15 storms are symptomatic of climate change.

“From a climate science perspective, we know we're in a pivotal decade to make choices about what our future climate looks and feels like — and the extent of these extreme events that we will have to navigate through and survive together as communities,’’ Roop said. 

Ramifications of climate change have impacts on the state from the types of trees that grow, to earlier infestations of insects (yes, ticks), to larger potholes, to significant economic impacts on winter recreational sports that many depend on for their income, Roop and Blumenfeld said.

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Several callers to the show discussed being sad over the changes, including a Duluth mother who became emotional talking about raising her children in a different kind of winter than she grew up experiencing. 

Roop acknowledged the emotional impacts and a sense of loss as the frigid, snow-packed winters many Minnesotans grew up with give way to milder temperatures, taking with them traditions and culture.

“These are the sort of very personal impacts of climate change, right? It may seem small: ‘Oh, well, you're not skiing anymore,’’’ she said. “But these are really parts of our identity and  represent our health and well-being and our connections to community and to family.”

Roop also pointed to damage to the state’s infrastructure that many may not think about as the state’s freeze-thaw cycles increase. A good snowpack acts as insulation to the ground, she said, and when snow thaws and freezing temperatures return, they penetrate the ground and can cause damage to pipes, water systems and septic systems. And that expanding and contracting also increases potholes in the roads.

The impact of climate change can seem emotionally overwhelming, but Roop said there are changes each person can make in their lives to help.

Some examples, she said, include: Washing clothes in cold water, transitioning to more efficient or electric or hybrid vehicles, avoiding air travel and moving to a plant-based diet.

Blumenfeld said that while Minnesotans may never know the winter of their childhood, they can embrace traditions that are fixed like the winter and summer solstices. 

“Even though we will continue being some of the coldest places in the country and have some of the longest, most serious winters in the country,’’ he said. “I’d say the character of winter is changing, and we really need to hold on to those memories, because I don't think we're going to see a lot of what we used to know about winter in the future.”

Guests: 

  • Heidi Roop is the director of the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership and an assistant professor of climate science at the University of Minnesota

  • Kenneth Blumenfeld is the senior climatologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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