In a normal year, Martin Larsen would have the soybeans harvested by now.
But the new normal for Minnesota farmers is that there is no normal.
This year, it rained and rained and rained, and 90 percent of the beans sat soaking in the fields of his 670-acre family farm outside Byron, Minn. Finally, on Friday, the skies cleared. The soybeans were still too soggy to harvest, but he made some headway on the corn.
Minnesota’s climate is changing. Winters aren’t as cold as they used to be. It rains more, and the rain comes in heavy bursts that wash away topsoil.
You can argue about it, or you can adapt. Minnesotans like Larsen don’t have time to argue.
He switched to no-till farming and planted cover crops to protect his lands from the rains that were washing the nutrients out of the soil.
“It’s something we had to do to keep the farm productive for the long run,” he said. “I have a 7-year-old son. If he wants to farm, we have to keep the farm in as-good or better shape than it was when we got it.”
Last week, climate scientists gave the planet a deadline. Stop burning coal, they warned. Get big into biofuels. Plant as many trees as you can while we still have a few glaciers and coral reefs left.
If we’re lucky, and if every government on Earth cooperates and sacrifices, then maybe — just maybe — we could limit global warming to a tolerable 1.5 degrees and fend off mass extinctions, melting ice caps, flooded coastlines, droughts, floods and famine.
While the planets chews on that, Minnesota is trying to cope with just how much its climate has changed already.
State agencies, law enforcement, academics, and health experts teamed up review those changes last year. Their report, Adapting to Climate Change in Minnesota, highlights how governments and citizens are scrambling, not to prepare for a grim worst-case future scenario, but the climate right now — where one day the air is choked with smoke from western wildfires and the next day a chunk of highway is washing away in a flash flood.
“Minnesota is getting warmer. It’s getting wetter,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist with the Minnesota State Climate Office. “We’re already outside the historical range of temperatures.”
You can argue, but you’re probably sneezing too hard. Ragweed season lasts three weeks longer than it used to.
Communities are widening storm sewers to cope with more rain and more violent storms. Since 2002, the state has weathered eight “mega-rain” events, where the skies opened and half a foot or more of rain poured down on everything within a thousand square miles below. It happened twice in summer of 2016 alone.
The warmer winters bring more freeze-thaw cycles that tear up the roads and turn waterways briny with road salt runoff. State and local road repair budgets are adjusting accordingly.
So far, Minnesota has been spared an increase in scorching summer heat waves, Blumenfeld said. That won’t last.
“We have not had an increase in days above 90 [degrees],” he said. “We should enjoy that. ... The science tells us that by 2040, 2050, we’re going to start seeing a noticeable increase in the frequency of heat waves.”
The winters are where it’s gotten weird. It’s been a decade since temperatures dipped to 50 below in Minnesota, even during the brutal polar vortex years that froze Lake Superior. Days that hit 40 below are getting rarer too.
Warmer winters sound appealing. Unless you’re a fan of ice fishing, or winter sports, or the state’s $16 billion outdoor recreation industry. Good luck scheduling your ice fishing tournament, winter festival or ski tournament around whipsaw weather forecasts. Remember last year, when International Falls warmed up to 50 degrees in February?
The tamarack trees are dying. The winters don’t get cold enough anymore to kill hungry eastern larch beetles. You can argue about climate change, but state forestry officials don’t have time to argue. When they plant saplings, they plant for the world 60 years in the future. They’re seeing a future Minnesota that won’t be a hospitable climate for aspen or paper birch or tamarack or black spruce.
Arguing really isn’t the most productive thing you could be doing right now. Because Minnesota’s climate is starting to look more like St. Louis, Missouri’s, and armadillos are extending their range northward and some of them have reached Wisconsin, and do we really want to live in a Minnesota that’s an armadillo habitat?
“What’s really frustrating for me over the years is how political climate change has become,” said David Thornton, assistant commissioner for air policy at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “The climate is going to change anyway. ... We need to think about that.”