If Minnesotans are like their next-door neighbors, they're facing an identity crisis with climate change, says a top Canadian climatologist.

"When the Soviet Union lost Georgia and the Balkans, Russia became the coldest country," said David Phillips, author and spokesman for Environment Canada, noting Canada's drop into second place two decades ago. "I thought it was good news, but Canadians were so disappointed. Who wants to be in second place?"

Phillips will outline the effect of a warming climate on Canada and, by slight extension, Minnesota as one of three speakers Thursday in the 20th annual Kuehnast Lecture at the University of Minnesota. The lecture is endowed by the family of Minnesota's first state climatologist, Earl Kuehnast.

This year's event has been billed as "Mini-Climate School," to capitalize on a topic that, while largely absent from the presidential campaign, has grabbed the public's attention, particularly in the week following superstorm Sandy.

"This program should improve our climate literacy and should improve our understanding of what climate change implications have in store for us," said Mark Seeley, University of Minnesota Extension climatologist and chairman of the Kuehnast Endowment Committee, who added that pointing to climate change as a cause of Sandy is "an oversimplification."

Other speakers will be Harold Brooks, research meteorologist with NOAA's National Severe Storm Laboratory, who will speak on climate change and thunderstorms, and Sue Grimmond, a geography professor at Kings College in London who will discuss research into urban climate change.

In a phone interview Monday, Phillips said he doesn't want to worry people about climate change. Because so much warming is already locked in place by long-lasting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, individuals and leaders need to focus instead on how to adapt to it, he said. That means spending a lot of money beefing up infrastructure and the capabilities to respond to extreme conditions, including both floods and droughts, which are expected to occur more frequently, he said.

"The truth is, even if we stopped all traffic and grounded all planes, the climate will still change," he said. "We need to prepare for it, so that little hit won't become a major blow. You can't prevent the hazard, but you can prevent it from becoming a disaster."

Brooks and Phillips will both touch on how while climate "normals" may not change dramatically, extremes such as storm or drought frequency and intensities might.

Brooks has found, for example, that tornado season in the U.S. starts earlier than it used to, but has been following unpredictable patterns through the spring and summer. Similarly, the trend appears to be toward more bursts of strong tornadoes -- "You may not have as many tornado days, but if you have a day, it's going to be huge," he said -- rather than seasons that see a steady run of tornadoes of all strengths.

Though conventional wisdom has it that a warmer climate, which carries more water vapor, will generate more and heavier thunderstorms, some research has found that it could also reduce the size of hail, Brooks said. Hail forms as droplets rise in a cloud, but if the ground is warmer, Brooks said, the hail will have to grow at a level higher in the atmosphere, and fall through a greater distance of warm air. That will allow it to melt more before it hits the ground.

The "Mini-Climate School" is being patterned after the university's popular "Mini Medical School" a lecture series with medical researchers. Seeley said that, and the climate focus, helped attract Thomson Reuters, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Regional Sustainability Partnership Program, the UM Extension and the U's Department of Soil, Water and Climate as co-sponsors. They have joined long-time sponsor Sigma Xi, the scientific research society.

Seeley said the event will also be live-streamed and recorded for the first time.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646