Feeling Minnesota, Looking Nebraska

Climatologists like the University of Minnesota’s Mark Seeley encourage an even more skeptical view of reading snowflakes like tea-leaves. Although he acknowledges that the state has seen trends in regional weather over the past century, he dislikes the term “climate change,” pointing out that the climate is always changing, with both long and short periods of warming and cooling not only in modern records, but in records reconstructed through the study of ice cores and sediments.

The British writer George Monbiot has pointed out that there is a cruel irony to global warming: The people whose lives will be affected most drastically are those who use the least amount of fossil fuels, whether they are East Africans or Indians suffering through increasing years of drought, or Bangladeshis facing devastation with rising sea levels.

Coastal areas are thought to be particularly vulnerable. In his novel A Friend of the Earth, writer T.C. Boyle follows a hapless protagonist into the year 2026. In this future of extremes, the formerly pleasant climate of Santa Barbara cycles between ferocious, roof-lifting gales and searing dry heat. The last of endangered animal species die off one by one in a rock star’s hobby zoo, and the only thing on the menu in the waterlogged restaurants is catfish and sake. It’s not a rosy picture of the future (although it’s something we Minnesotans might wish upon the Golden State when we’re scraping the ice off our windshields in February).

What might happen in Minnesota as a result of global warming is the subject of a growing body of research, but the scenarios are many, and mapping the possible interactions of heat, air, and water with the natural environment is a hell of a lot more difficult than forecasting the weekend weather. But, unlike 20 years ago, when the specter of global warming was hotly debated and carefully provisoed even by those who were already convinced, the scientific consensus today has shifted much more to the reality of man-made climate change. A 2001 report by the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the earth had warmed by about 1 degree F over the past century, that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen by 30 percent since 1750, that “confidence in the ability of models to project future climate has increased,” and that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”

Perhaps most telling is the increasingly shrill voice of industry in the discussion. One prominent businessman noted in March that “there are huge uncertain ties about the risks and the impact. Further research is essential. But we can’t wait to answer all questions beyond reasonable doubt… We stand with those who are prepared to take action to solve that problem… now… before it is too late.” Although those sound more like the words of a Green Party spokesman, they were actually uttered by Sir Philip Watts, the chairman of Shell Oil. British Petroleum recently trumpeted that the company has already met its 2010 goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that the improvements were achieved at no net cost to the company.

In Minnesota, even at the more subtle end of predicted climate change, scientists are predicting major changes in the landscape. One of the most dramatic predicted changes is that the tall pine and aspen forests that define the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and wide swaths of the north-central and northeast parts of the state will die off within 50 to 100 years.

Losing the northern woods is just one of the fundamental challenges to Minnesotans’ self-identity posed by global warming. Whether we like to tear through them on snowmobiles, chop them down for paper pulp, fish in their lakes, or hike quietly through them in order to hear the birds, the north woods loom large in our imagination. Even in a state where the majority of the population lives in the Twin Cities metro area, the great outdoors still most often means going “up north.” If landscape determines culture, as writer Terry Tempest Williams has suggested, then what does the loss of a touchstone landscape mean for Minnesota?

In the northern hemisphere, spring is now arriving a week earlier and the onset of autumn is delayed by five days, as measured by plant behavior, compared to two decades ago. Another study has found that lakes and rivers in the northern hemisphere freeze over a week later and thaw out 10 days sooner than they did 150 years ago. Like other regions between 20 and 50 degrees latitude, we in Minnesota have seen an increase in precipitation over the past century—about 20 percent since 1900. Today, more of that precipitation is attributable to thunderstorms than it was 100 years ago.

In Minnesota, the increase in temperature is slightly less than the global mean over the past century, although one local study showed an increase of 3 degrees between 1860 and 1987. According to Mark Seeley, this warming is largely a function of milder winters rather than changes in other seasonal temperatures, and it is the daily minimum temperatures that seem to be rising more than the maximums.

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