Research, infrastructure improvements can help state adapt.
If last year's March warmth, June deluge, July heat and autumn drought didn't convince doubters that global climate change has come to Minnesota, last week brought fresh evidence for them to consider.
The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, canceled last year and in 2007 because of insufficient snow, faces the same problem this year and has been postponed. Organizers hope the race can be run in March.
And three state House committees spent nearly two hours listening to five University of Minnesota scientists explain that the Beargrease and many other Minnesota weather-related traditions are in jeopardy.
Their troubling presentation generated rapt attention among members of the House capital investment, legacy, and environment/natural resources/agriculture committees. A few climate change skeptics among committee members made their presence known. But most of the several dozen legislators in attendance seemed sobered and persuaded by what they heard.
That response is heartening. Meeting the challenges climate change is bringing Minnesota will require enlisting a broad range of resources, including state policy and the public purse.
The professors explained that dramatic changes in the state's natural environment have begun and are expected to continue unless carbon dioxide levels in the planet's atmosphere are reduced.
That matches the conclusion of the U.S. Global Change Research Project, whose new report earlier this month said the American Midwest could see another 4.9-degree increase in average temperatures by midcentury.
That much heat, added to the 3-degree increase already seen in parts of Minnesota in the last 30 years, would mean more and longer droughts; more precipitation arriving in the form of damaging thunderstorms accompanied by tornadoes; the retreat of coniferous forests; more invasive plants and aquatic life, and longer growing seasons.
Not all of the changes are undesirable. For example, said agronomist Nicholas Jordan, the ability of Minnesota farmers to grow perennial as well as annual crops could enhance farm income. Adding field pennycress, a groundcover plant valuable for livestock feed and oil production, alongside soybeans could boost farmers' bottom lines by $300 per acre, he said.
But even the welcome parts of the forecast would require adaptation by Minnesotans who interact with the natural world -- in other words, just about everyone.
It's good that the same research institution that has helped Minnesotans make the most of nature since pioneer days, the University of Minnesota, is on the job. A larger role should be in the offing for the 104-year-old Extension Service, which ought to climb on funding priority lists.
Farmers who in the not-distant past worked to remove excess water from their fields may soon need to deploy water conservation tactics. Forest management may involve introducing desirable species of trees to get ahead of invasive less-desirable varieties.
University research should guide such decisions. The U's state funding request for 2014-15 includes $36 million over two years earmarked for research, including how to keep human water supplies clean and food resources sufficient. Legislators should see the importance of that work and affirmatively respond.
Legislators also should shape infrastructure investments with climate change in mind. For example, House capital investment chair Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, proposes that for every $1 the state spends repairing flood damage, it should spend a matching $1 on efforts that would prevent future flooding, such as wetlands restoration.
Minnesotans who resist more state spending should know that floods are already costing state taxpayers a hefty sum. Between 2000 and 2012, Minnesota has issued $355 million in bonds to pay for flood-mitigation projects. Unless the public sector can better anticipate floods and act to lessen the toll they take, "we could find ourselves spending half of our bonding bills repairing flood damage in a few years," Hausman said.
That's the kind of analysis that the latest Minnesota climate-change forecasts should be generating in both the public and private sectors. As forestry Prof. Peter Reich told the House committees, scientists may still be debating the magnitude of the changes that are coming. But they do not disagree about the direction of the trend line.
It's going to get warmer, stormier and drier here. Minnesotans should get ready.
An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.