How you can use a new tool that looks at climate change in your own backyard

A playground surrounded by water.
A playground sits surrounded by flood water in Hudson, Wis., on April 18, 2023.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The University of Minnesota launches a new online tool this week. It allows people to visualize how a future climate will look and feel in their own backyards.

Users can zoom in on rainfall, temperature and other climate projections down to the size of a neighborhood. The goal is to help engineers, farmers and others better plan for a climate-changed future.

For more on this new tool, University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership director Heidi Roop joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

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

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The University of Minnesota launches a new online tool this week. It allows people to visualize how a future climate will look and feel in their own backyards. Users can zoom in on rainfall, temperature, and other climate projections, down to the size of a neighborhood. As Dan Crocker tells us in this getting to green story, the goal is to help engineers, farmers, and others better plan for a climate changed future.

DAN CROCKER: Last week, Suzi Clark, a climate resilience extension educator with the U, put the tool through its paces.

SUZI CLARK: So let's say you're a farmer who is concerned that you might deal with longer days without any rain.

DAN CROCKER: Users can draw their own maps or search by watershed or tribal area or other areas of interest. Clark chooses Stearns County.

SUZI CLARK: And you want to know how many days in the growing season will be without rain. So you choose a variable, which is the longest dry spell.

DAN CROCKER: Then you can select different timeframes and emission scenarios, basically different estimates of how much society will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, and see what their impact might be.

SUZI CLARK: At the end of the century, under very high emissions, within the growing season, which is May to September in our tool, there could be up to 19 consecutive days without any measurable rainfall.

DAN CROCKER: That's just one of many scenarios the tool can model, including different precipitation and temperature measurements, even soil and lake temperatures. Heidi Roop directs the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership, or MCAP, and created the tool in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Commerce. She hopes it sparks discussion about the climate risks we face. There's one projection in particular that gives her pause.

HEIDI ROOP: At the end of the century, the new data show that there will be up to 40 days per summer that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. So I live in Minnesota. I think most of us are cold weather loving people. That is shocking.

DAN CROCKER: Roop hopes that type of information is a catalyst for change in how we design communities and infrastructure.

HEIDI ROOP: Because the future of tomorrow and beyond is very different from the climate we've experienced in the past. So we need to start thinking about how we plan and design for a future in a climate changed world.

DAN CROCKER: Some local governments and state agencies are already taking climate change into account when planning for the future. For example, MnDOT has used climate projections to rank the vulnerability of roads and bridges. But Clark says this tool will allow them to do so at a much finer resolution-- down to a 2.5-mile scale.

SUZI CLARK: The metaphor that I've been using lately is that would be like getting information for just the Minnesota State fairgrounds, which is pretty specific.

DAN CROCKER: Clark says in order to make decisions at the local level, you need information at the local scale.

SUZI CLARK: So global climate models, at their greatest right now, the best that we can do is about a 60-mile resolution. So that would be like having one estimate from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. The effects of climate change could be pretty different across 60 miles.

DAN CROCKER: Effects can even vary from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood. Eight years ago, Ramsey County developed a vulnerability assessment that details which areas of the county are most susceptible to public health impacts of climate change. Abby Phillips is the county's climate and health program supervisor.

ABBY PHILLIPS: And MCAP's climate projections tool will help us understand how that might look different in the future and where we might want to be building partnerships and building a better understanding of community members' needs based on future conditions related to climate change impacts.

DAN CROCKER: The U's Suzi Clark believes the new mapping tool will help bring climate change home.

SUZI CLARK: So people realize it's not something that's happening only in Fiji or in Florida. It's happening here, too. It's already happening.

DAN CROCKER: And now they can see in much more detail how that will play out in the future right where they live. Dan Crocker, MPR News.

CATHY WURZER: For more on this tool, University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership director, Director Dr. Heidi Roop, is on the line. Dr. Roop, always a pleasure. Welcome.

HEIDI ROOP: Good afternoon, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Hi. Say, very interesting here. How much uncertainty is built into this tool? And do you think that the findings are precise enough to be useful for folks?

HEIDI ROOP: Short answer, yes. Of course, if climate scientists had crystal balls, we wouldn't necessarily need tools like ours. But we use sophisticated climate modeling techniques and leverage strengths we have here in the state of Minnesota, including our Minnesota Supercomputing Institute, which allows us to downscale those global models that Suzi spoke about to this hyper-local level.

And of course, there's uncertainty, but we also know very clearly that if we had been planning with past climate models, we'd probably be further ahead in both our-- in our preparation for climate change in the state and across the nation. And so we firmly believe that these data represent a progression in the science and are highly usable, particularly in Minnesota and the greater Midwest.

CATHY WURZER: Have you had a chance to try it out, say, in your own backyard?

HEIDI ROOP: You know, I have. I live near the state fairgrounds, actually, and I spend a lot of time working with folks across the state, from farmers and foresters to inter-tribal organizations. So I get to think about the impacts of climate change in many of our backyards. And this tool is, of course, one important tool in our toolbox as we seek to actually confront the risks that climate change-- we have here in the state and start to prepare.

CATHY WURZER: How might just a normal person use this, maybe deciding if they should-- I don't know what would-- what would the scenario be for just an everyday person who might find this useful?

HEIDI ROOP: Well, that's a great question. I think, you know, for me, it's been part of my communicating effectively about climate change. As the adage goes, right, seeing is believing. And I think this tool is one way we can start to weave our climate future into the stories we share with our families and our friends. And we think about, what does climate change mean for me?

Often, when big science reports are published, our national reports and our international reports, it's really easy to say, not in my backyard. And our hope is that this tool for the everyday user helps paint a picture of the climate of the future. But you can also look at the range of possible futures that we could face. And then with that is a story of hope because we still get to choose what we feel and experience from climate change in Minnesota. And so our tool can help you visualize what we can create if we choose to act.

CATHY WURZER: Because you've had an opportunity to use it, how might your neighborhood around the U of M look different, say, in the next 10, 20, 30 years because of climate change? What does the tool tell you?

HEIDI ROOP: It tells us that we're looking for hotter summers. We are looking at drier summers and also warmer, wetter winters, much of what we're already experiencing amplified. They like to say climate change is a threat amplifier. We're expecting more extreme precipitation and more of that extreme heat.

And fortunately, the University of Minnesota system, as a whole, is leading on climate work. And we've got great folks making plans and also thinking about how the University of Minnesota system and our campuses can serve as safe harbors during climate events in the future, and also how we can reduce our carbon footprint as an institution and as a system. And so, in many ways, the University of Minnesota's leading the way in thinking about how we integrate this information and think about what it means for maintaining operations and safety for students, faculty, staff, and the communities in which we are part.

CATHY WURZER: There's a lot of new data coming in, as we know more. I'm wondering, will this model change as new data is inputted?

HEIDI ROOP: Great question. And the answer to that is, fortunately, yes. The state of Minnesota invested in this tool, and they've invested in increased presence of climate extension staff and faculty. You heard from some of those in the story with Dan. And we are working across the state not only to continue to iterate and improve on the data in the tool, but I think, most importantly, help people use it.

This is still complex information, and we now have capacity to help communities and individuals navigate what does the future look like and what can we do. And so we will be accelerating the science and using these new data as a springboard for creating new model products.

We have groundwater data coming near the end of the year, looking at future groundwater changes. We are going to be starting a project looking at future streamflow and drought risks across the state, and we're actually using these information already to inform state building design guidelines. How do we make sure all of our built environment is up to the challenges of climate change?

CATHY WURZER: Interesting. Thank you so much. We appreciate it, Dr. Roop.

HEIDI ROOP: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Dr. Heidi Roop, director of the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership Program. If you missed Dan's story about the new climate tool, you can, of course, find it on our website, mprnews.org.

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