Stormy outlook for Minnesota in climate change report

Warming Midwest temperatures
This chart, part of the National Climate Assessment, shows annual average temperatures (red line) across the Midwest show a trend towards increasing temperature. The trend (heavy black line) calculated over the period 1895-2012 is equal to an increase of 1.5 degrees.
Courtesy National Climate Assessment/White House

Minnesota farmers have witnessed it for years, meteorologists and explorers, too. The region's climate is warming, the environment is shifting south and weather is more volatile than ever.

A growing body of scientific data backs up what Minnesotans see daily.

The latest evidence came this week in the National Climate Assessment, a White House report detailing the potential consequences of climate change on rainfall, drought and heat by state, including Minnesota. The report predicts "increasingly disruptive" effects from climate change across the country.

What, if anything, to do about that remains up for debate. Policy makers in Minnesota and other states remain divided over how to respond.

Observers, however, say it's no longer possible to ignore.

"Ask your insurance agent or your local farmer, and they'll tell you they already know climate change is here in Minnesota, and that we're already paying for it," said MPR News senior meteorologist Paul Huttner.

"We're seeing those impacts in higher prices. Farmers are dealing with more radical shifts in weather during growing seasons, from flash flood to flash drought the past few years," Huttner said Wednesday on the MPR News show Daily Circuit.

Insurance rates in Minnesota, he said, have tripled over the past 15 years due to the increase in extreme weather. Insurers refer to Minnesota as "the new Florida, because we've been in the top three states in catastrophic losses in three of the past seven years."

The climate change report notes that Minnesota's location puts it directly in the midst of a Midwest negotiating the landscape of agricultural stresses and urban vulnerability that come along with climate change and its consequences -- increased heat, extreme rainfall and prolonged drought. Minnesota's existing infrastructure wasn't built for that and isn't prepared to deal with the long- and short-term impacts of climate change.

The White House adds that Midwesterners can expect a longer growing season if climate change continues along its current path.

That might sound like a good thing, but extreme weather events will offset any benefits, said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at the St. Paul environmental advocacy group Fresh Energy.

"We're seeing later frosts in many years, which can take out some crops, and an increase in crop diseases that used to be pushed back by our tough winters," Hamilton said. "We're now seeing some crop pests show up in Minnesota and be able to thrive in Minnesota that didn't used to be able to make it across the Iowa border," he said. "We are likely to see reduced yields and crop failures."

The White House report also says the composition of the region's forests could change as rising temperatures change the habitats for many trees.

In the North Woods, red maple trees from more temperate parts of the state are displacing pine, spruce and fir trees, said Lee Frelich, who heads the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology. The loss of boreal forest could affect all species in the ecosystem -- trees, wildlife, birds, insects, plants, mosses and fish, Frelich added.

Wet summers in recent decades have pushed the border between the prairie and forest south and if climate change continues at its current pace, that could reverse and the line could creep past the Canadian border, he added

If it gets hot enough the forests of the Boundary Waters could eventually become grasslands, he warned.

Minnesota has been a leader in trying to cut the greenhouse gases that contribute to the changing climate. The state's Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 requires Minnesota utilities to get 25 percent of the power they produce from renewable resources by 2025.

Xcel Energy says it must meet an even higher renewable standard.

"We've implemented some of the nation's leading energy efficiency and conservation programs," said Frank Prager, Xcel's vice president of policy and strategy. The utility continues to add wind-power electric generation to the grid and has retired several aging coal plants, he added.

Solar use has to increase, too. A law enacted last year requires utilities to produce 1.5 percent of their electricity using solar by 2020. The 100 megawatt Geronimo Energy Aurora project is expected to boost Minnesota's solar output eightfold.

Those kinds of changes can't come fast enough, some Minnesotans say.

On The Daily Circuit, Kerri Miller spoke Wednesday with explorer Eric Larsen of Grand Marais, who with his partner Ryan Waters reached the North Pole Tuesday. The pair had traveled by ski and snowshoe, and occasionally by swimming through open water.

"This is actually my third expedition to the geographic North Pole," he said. His previous trips were in 2006 and 2010. "This year was so dramatically different from anything that I'd previously seen, just in the character and nature of the sea ice."

"There's less overall sea ice and in the summertime there's more open water," he said. What ice there is, he said, is "not as thick as it used to be, and it breaks up more."

Larsen said he expects that his expedition to the pole will be one of the last.

"The ice is getting thinner, which means that people's physical ability to do this trip most likely will not be possible," he said. "Not only that, the logistics window is narrowing. Some of our ability to get picked up is determined by that ice thickness and overall temperature."

"Realistically, this expedition will not be possible," he said. "And honestly, it's not something that I would like to be known for -- the last people to ever be able to do a trip of this style."

Mixed reviews at state Capitol

Closer to home, at the Minnesota Legislature, the White House climate change report is getting a mixed response.

State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who sits on the Environment and Energy Committee, is skeptical about the science behind global climate change and believes major changes in energy policy could raise costs for consumers.

She accused President Barack Obama of "pandering to a particular group of environmentalists" and said she wants other questions answered.

"If there is climate change, what is it going to do?" she asked. "Are people causing it? And if people are causing it, to what level are we willing to change our lives in order to stop the climate change?"

The public, however, is pressing lawmakers now to act, said House Environment Finance Committee Chair Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. "Ten years ago they weren't pushing us at all, five years a little bit, but now I can feel the public pressure."

For Minnesotans whose jobs are tied to weather and its effects, the White House report is old news.

"Over the last couple of years, we've had something like 21 counties in Minnesota that had both drought declarations and flood declarations at the same time," he said.

"The pendulum is swinging so much more rapidly now in Minnesota," Huttner said, that "it's hard to keep up."

Join the MPR News conversation: What changes are you seeing in Minnesota's climate? How are you preparing?