That’s right — past tense. It’s already happened. We must adapt. Here are the key questions.
When the weather no longer plays by the rules, we must adapt to the new rules of the game.
Weather patterns are changing. Our new normal includes destructive April ice storms and the horrific blizzard that struck the Black Hills the first week of October.
Minnesota began statewide climate record-keeping 119 years ago. Of the 10 warmest years recorded, seven took place within the last 15 years. In just one month, March 2012, we set more than 700 new warm-temperature records.
At 6 p.m., July 19, 2011, the hottest point on Earth wasn’t Death Valley or sub-Saharan Africa. It was Moorhead.
Across the globe, people are deciding how — not whether — to adapt. In the United States, cities along the East Coast are exploring the costs and benefits of massive sea barriers to protect their communities against the next Hurricane Sandy-scale storm. The Southwest, on the other hand, must confront shrinking water supplies as its regional population grows.
In Minnesota, we face the alternation of weather extremes — a not-so-merry-go-round of drought and flood. During 2012, 76 of Minnesota’s 87 counties experienced severe to extreme drought. In the same year, 11 counties declared flood emergencies.
The increasing incidence of extreme weather creates both short-term and long-term impacts that require us to adapt to the new weather normal.
• More of our precipitation comes from intense storms dropping four to eight inches of rain. They punctuate increasingly drawn-out dry periods, often eroding soils and saturating crop fields. How can agriculture — part of our economic bedrock — keep its vitality and help feed us as such extremes become more common? What impact will this have in the private and public sectors?
• These severe storms — sometimes delivering golf-ball-sized hail and resulting in flash floods — help make Minnesota the 14th-most-expensive state for homeowners’ insurance. What is climate change’s long-term effect on the insurance industry? What does that mean for consumers?
• Southern Minnesota has had three 1,000-year floods in the last nine years. Do we invest in more robust sewer systems or take our chances? How much financial exposure can communities risk?
Coming to terms with the public- and private-sector implications of climate change is difficult. But it’s not beyond our reach. Today the University of Minnesota Extension and other cosponsors will host “Preparing Minnesota for Climate Change,” a conference on adaptation.
The conference explores the complex impact of climate change on transportation infrastructure, public health and what lies ahead for our state’s natural resources. We’ll learn what’s already underway in adaptation and how events like the June 2012 superstorm in Duluth have yielded valuable lessons.
We hope this is just the first of yearly events that will inform our efforts to adapt as climate changes reshape our future. Significant work is already underway. My Extension colleagues, for example, are studying how to cope with the impact of pests that can survive our milder winters and how a more highly variable water supply will affect agriculture.
A key tenet of adaptation calls on us to plan for extreme weather that was once all but unimaginable. At the same time, the commitment to adapt in no way minimizes the essential need for us to mitigate climate change. We must effectively strive to reduce the magnitude of change even as we adjust to its impact.
Mark Seeley is a University of Minnesota Extension climatologist and professor in the university’s department of soil, water and climate.
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