Minn. communities look for ways to adapt to climate change

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The Scattergood Power Plant, which runs on natural gas, operates after sunset in this 2006 file photo in El Segundo, Calif. Taking climate change efforts into his own hands, President Barack Obama on Tuesday, June 25, 2013,will propose sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property.
David McNew / Getty Images 2006

In an effort to cope with heavier rains and warmer temperatures that climate change brings, some communities are beginning to grapple with ways to help people adapt to the inevitable, even as they work to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

That means creating more spaces for stormwater to flow to ease flooding, and mapping sites where people can cool off during heat waves.

Earlier this week, a panel of scientists studying climate change for the United Nations laid out a monumental task for humanity: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the end of this century. But they also said we've already put enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause significant change, so we have to learn ways to deal with it.

"It took a long time for enough people to understand that there really was an issue," said Faye Sleeper, interim director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota.

The WRC is bringing together government officials, academics and others at a conference Thursday to discuss ways to adapt to climate change in Minnesota.

Weather observers have documented increased temperatures and more frequent big rain events in the state, and climate scientists expect the trends to continue.

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The message that we need climate adaptation is gaining steam now that experts working across a wide range of fields have started talking about it, said Sleeper. "I think the public starts to understand that it will impact their lives."

Climate adaptation work is already under way on a small scale in Minnesota as a response to here-and-now problems like changes in rainfall. Some cities and transportation planners have begun using new precipitation data to make sure roads and stormwater systems can handle heavier rains. Some forest managers are experimenting with different tree species expected to be more resilient to the changing climate.

Farmers have long been finding ways to be more resilient to year-to-year weather changes. But now that the climate trends are clearer, some are advocating changes in what we grow. Diversifying the agricultural landscape is one of the best ways to make it more resilient to climate change, said Nick Jordan, a U of M researcher who studies the ecology of agriculture. He says the trick is to find crops that could both benefit the soil and farmers' pocketbooks.

"We have not had a business model to really move that kind of climate-smart agriculture forward," Jordan said.

Jordan sees opportunity in the emerging bioeconomy: biofuels, biomaterials and biochemicals. Right now, only a small percentage of farmers are planting perennials or cover crops alongside corn and soybeans. The idea has been to leave the cover crops in the soil to boost organic material, which in turn can help the field absorb heavy rains. But Jordan says giving farmers an additional incentive to plant these lesser-known crops could still benefit the soil even if parts of the plants were harvested.

"A lot of the very same crops that would provide bioproducts are also the very crops that we need to put on the landscape to bring that diversification," Jordan said. "So it's really that coincidence that makes this all possible."

Even individual homeowners can do things that will help both themselves and their communities adapt to climate change, says Paul Moss, who oversees climate adaptation efforts at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

"For example, look at planting trees near your home," Moss said. "Trees can help cool your home when we're having hot weather. Also, trees can help intercept heavy precipitation and break the fall of the rain as well as absorb and purify the rain."