Minnesotans have reveled this week in some of the best weather of the year with a watchful eye to the nation’s mid-Atlantic seaboard. If, as expected, Hurricane Florence makes landfall Thursday night at a vicious Category 3 level or greater, devastating damage is sure to result.
As is their wont, Minnesotans will respond with sympathy, donations and volunteer labor — and a touch of smugness. Minnesota didn’t make a recent list of the nation’s 25 most disaster-prone states, compiled by moneywise.com. This landlocked state is spared hurricanes. The risk of volcanoes and earthquakes is exceedingly low. Even tornadoes, which Minnesotans know and respect, are less frequent than in several other Midwestern states.
But Minnesotans should know this: The same climatological phenomenon that is adding potency to Florence this year and made hurricanes Harvey, Inez and Maria record-breakers last year is affecting this state, too. Climate change is making Minnesota a wetter place.
Just as higher Atlantic Ocean surface temperatures are fueling Florence’s intensity, so higher temperatures in Minnesota are leading to more precipitation. The 30-year averages that produce what meteorologists deem “normal” precipitation levels have been climbing steadily throughout the state for a half-century, reports University of Minnesota emeritus professor and climatologist Mark Seeley. They are expected to keep climbing.
Already in the Twin Cities, normal annual precipitation has increased 20 percent, up from 25.93 inches in 1941-70 to 31.16 inches in 1981-2010. Seeley expects another boost when the next 30-year average is calculated in 2020, and another in 2030. In Greater Minnesota, precipitation levels are also up but in varying degrees, with the heavily agricultural counties of south-central Minnesota seeing increases in the 30-35 percent range, Seeley told an editorial writer.
Climate change also explains the increased frequency of heavy storms, of the sort that produce flash flooding, washed-out crop fields, costly structural damage and risk to human life and health. The latest example: an Aug. 27-28 storm so severe that it destroyed a scenic waterfall in Hokah, in far southeastern Minnesota.
To the credit of state lawmakers, state assistance when such storms strike is not in doubt. The 2014 Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton established a contingency account that the governor can tap to pay the state’s share of recovery costs when storm damage exceeds requisite thresholds.
Local and regional governments have also been planning for a wetter Minnesota. The Metropolitan Council’s Climate Vulnerability Assessment is an aid to local planning, and it has utility well beyond the Twin Cities area. The University of Minnesota hosts an annual climate adaptation conference for local officials and others charged with community responses to the changing climate; the next such meeting is set for Nov. 14.
These are commendable first steps at the start of what Minnesotans should see as a long journey that they cannot avoid taking. It’s long past time to discard mistaken notions that climate change only matters to polar bears, penguins and seacoast dwellers. It matters here, too — and how Minnesotans respond will matter for years to come.
(One fine way to learn more about climate change: Attend Seeley’s lecture “Climate Change in Our Own Backyards: Evidence and Implications,” on Oct. 4. It’s part of the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education’s Headliner series, and tickets are required — https://ccaps.umn.edu/headliners.)