I. New Kansas
Minnesota is changing. In some ways, irreversibly.
The state has warmed 1 to 3 degrees in the last century. We know this despite brutal winters in which schools still close and the poor lose toes, because scientists have been meticulously logging temperatures every day since 1895. Longterm data show that annual averages are on an unrelenting upward march.
The planet’s last five years have been the hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That’s left Minnesota to enter unknown territory of increasingly erratic weather.
In 2007, 24 counties sought federal drought assistance due to lack of rain. Two weeks later, a biblical downpour drowned seven others into FEMA disaster areas. Minnesota had never seen simultaneous drought and flooding like that before. Five years later, it happened again.
In 2011, Moorhead briefly tied with California’s Death Valley as the hottest, most humid place on earth with a heat index of 134 degrees.
Three years ago, Waseca received 56 inches of annual precipitation, setting a new state record. But last year, nearby Harmony registered four inches more, including rainfall more typical of cities along the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA now ranks Minneapolis and Mankato as the second- and third-fastest warming cities in the United States.
Last month, state Rep. Jean Wagenius invited a delegation of University of Minnesota scientists went to the Capitol. They bore models created by laboratories around the world, based on billions of calculations from satellites, aircraft, ships, treetops, and farm fields, capable of predicting the trajectory of climate change up to 100 years into the future.
Some of these scientists have been warning Minnesota lawmakers about these models for decades. They were practiced and patient, but blunt.
“It’s highly visible to anybody that’s got a pair of eyes, but right here in the North American continent, we occupy a piece of American real estate that’s seen some of the most profound changes of anywhere in the country,” says Mark Seeley. The former University of Minnesota professor’s book, Minnesota Weather Almanac, includes every significant change in the state’s history.
“Every incremental change in the model translates to a highly amplified change in our Minnesota backyard. That can’t be overstated.”
Lakes have begun to freeze later in the year and thaw sooner. Longer growing periods come hand in hand with voracious new pests, deadly parasites, and toxic algae. The boreal forest is receding, taking with it the animals that have come to represent the wild north.
U of M professor Bonnie Keeler says that in 30 years, Faribault in summertime will feel like places more than 500 miles to the south—the equivalent of moving the city 315 feet each day.
By 2100, Minnesota will become the new Kansas, with the loss of one-third of its native species, scientists say. If nothing is done to curb current levels of CO2 emission, Minnesota could be up to Grand Marais in savannah.
II. Goodbye Loon
We’re about to witness a remarkable change, from the two million acres of boreal forest in the Arrowhead, to the broadleaf woods and fertile prairies of the central and south.
When University of Minnesota ecologist Lee Frelich walked the state’s north woods 30 years ago, the area was a crisp fortress of jack pine and black spruce. Moose numbered 12,000. Over the years, deciduous tree seedlings invaded. When he takes Highway 169 to Ely in the fall these days, there are so many orange and yellow bursts on the landscape that he would no longer call it boreal, a proper snow forest composed of evergreen conifers.
Minnesota is the only one of the 48 contiguous states to have large swaths of this biome, but our grasp on it is weakening.
Frelich’s Ph.D. students spent the last several years wading through the living laboratory of the Boundary Waters, comparing new growth on the forest floor to mature species in the canopy. They discovered that red maple, not native to this forest, make up most seedlings in certain places.
Spruce, fir, paper birch, and quaking aspen will all decline rapidly in the next decade, Frelich predicts. They’re already under stress, as northern Minnesota is warming twice as fast as southern Minnesota.
Soon they’ll contract disease. They’ll die in heatwaves, drought, and springs that come too early, forcing them out of dormancy.
Increasing warmth makes the difference between boreal and temperate forest. But it’s dryness that will propel the subsequent prairie invasion.
Minnesota’s winters are warming 13 times faster than its summers. But climate models show summers catching up. When that happens, evaporation will outstrip precipitation, and the climate will dry, allowing grassland to push northward.
By 2070 most of the state could be prairie—including two-thirds of the Boundary Waters, leaving the forest-prairie border somewhere between Ely and Grand Marais.
It is heartbreaking, Frelich says, to know that the woods Minnesotans loved will exit the state.
“We’ll just have to make sure it’s the best savannah it can be,” he says. “Not a bunch of invasive species. We’ll have to move some of the plants from our little tiny savannah remnants in southern Minnesota up there. But you know, if that’s what happens, we’ll just have to do the best we can.”
Loss of habitat kicks off a chain reaction in the exodus of native wildlife. Lynx will leave for Canada while bobcats, typical of Mexico, take their place. The magnificent moose—down to a quarter of its 1980s population and exempt from hunting since 2013—may disappear as rising temperatures beckon more of the same parasites responsible for killing them off.
Cold-water fish are being squeezed into the narrow habitat between the upper layers of sun-baked lakes and their oxygen-depleted depths. As smaller species perish, so do the walleye that prey on them. In the north central resort towns where business owners and tribes have long relied on the health of fish, having less to go around has already elevated finger-pointing between neighbors.
The National Audubon Society predicts that loons will abandon Minnesota by 2080 for colder climes.
As wildlife retreats, invasive pests advance. Scientists studying the North Pole theorize that the melting of Arctic permafrost will release an onslaught of zombie pathogens. But the more immediate threat to Minnesota is the growing range of ticks and mosquitos and the infectious diseases they carry, like Lyme and West Nile.
Warm, stagnating waters gorged with urban discharge and rural fertilizer runoff create the perfect conditions for deadly algae blooms to interrupt Minnesota’s favorite summer pastimes. These floating gluts of toxin can mass murder fish and cause neurological impairment in people. But because it’s impossible to tell harmful blooms from the benign by sight, dead dogs are usually the first indication that something’s very wrong.
In 2010 and again in 2012, children waded into a Stillwater lake infested with a parasite called Naegleria fowleri. It climbed their nasal cavities, entering the frontal lobe of the brain, where it fed until the children died.
Naegleria fowleri is so rare that there’s virtually no chance of contracting it, but those who do almost never survive. And because they are more routinely seen in the tropical freshwaters of Texas and Florida, their incursion into a lake as far north as Minnesota is a mystery. Kansas is the only other Midwestern state to have ever seen a case. The American Public Health Association postulates that warming waters will increase the risk of Naegleria fowleri farther north.
III. Rural anxiety, urban morbidity
A significant portion of the population has long dismissed evidence of ecological transition. Some believe Minnesota will benefit from this fall of the cards with a longer growing season.
Indeed, some effects of climate change have been helpful to farmers. For example, more of the state has become suitable for planting since 1950.
But a longer growing period also means increased threats of insect infestation, University of Minnesota soil scientist Jessica Gutknecht testified at the Capitol. Winter’s freeze ray is supposed to eradicate aphid and rootworm eggs, but when the lows don’t get low for long enough, Minnesota’s pests survive to feast on crops.
The state’s also seeing more frequent mega-storms and intervening dry spells, according to U of M meteorologist Mark Seeley. In times of irregular precipitation, farm communities and cities alike endure disasters that seem out of step with the Midwest.
The Great Duluth Flood of 2012 wrought $100 million in property damage. Bridges crumbled. Zoo animals drowned. Cars tumbled into sinkholes that cleaved roads in two.
Last October, again historic waves and gales raging up to 86 miles per hour battered St. Louis County as Lake Superior “turned against the community,” wrote then-Gov. Mark Dayton in a letter to FEMA. Storm-surge flooding destroyed Duluth’s signature boardwalk and heaved railroad tracks and sidewalks, exposing rebar and electrical lines. The business district stood in two feet of water.
By that time, Dayton had spent $8.7 million on eight natural disasters affecting 20 counties and one tribal nation. He’d already begged FEMA for $21 million to repair damage from summer floods.
“The state of Minnesota has already borne a very large measure of disaster costs in 2018. All this activity has exhausted our disaster assistance contingency account,” the governor wrote.
Lower-income communities are bound to reap the lion’s share of climate change’s casualties, says the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni.
Globally, this manifests in things like record-breaking Indian summers, killing thousands for want of air conditioning. Or Bangladeshi refugees fanning across the subcontinent as rising sea levels swallow coastal towns. Or Puerto Rico going nearly a year without power.
Locally, it means the metro area’s highest rates of asthma hospitalization can be seen in north Minneapolis. On increasingly hot summer days, car exhaust and pollutants from the area’s heavy industries stagnate and bake together in the sunlight to create ozone, which triggers asthma attacks.
According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, north Minneapolis air holds 80 percent more lead—linked to neurological underdevelopment in children—than the national standard.
Despite increasingly dire reports from the medical community, Surapaneni stays positive because, “As physicians, we take care of people who are dying from horrible causes every day,” she says. “We have to deal with grief every day, and there’s no antidote to grief, only action. You cannot give up. This is our only home.”
IV. The fractured reality of climate change
The hellish lows of February’s polar vortex left parts of Minnesota colder than Alaska. Meanwhile, Australia experienced record-shattering heat as roads melted and bats dropped dead from trees.
“What the hell is going on with Global Waming?” tweeted President Donald Trump, who once accused the Chinese of inventing climate change as a hoax. “Please come back fast, we need you!”
Within a week, temperatures in Minnesota rebounded 75 degrees before hurtling into a second week of intense cold and snow.
Though it seems counterintuitive, some scientists are asking whether these bitter outbreaks might increase in the future as a result of climate change, says University of Minnesota atmospheric scientist Tracy Twine.
The polar vortex, a swirling storm contained in the icy northern cap of the world, will often become less stable in winter, breathing currents of Arctic air down over parts of the United States with the jet stream. And recently the jet stream—which forms a boundary between the cold air of the north and the hot air of the equator—has become wavier, as opposed to its typical oval shape encircling the North Pole. Understanding the relationship between this phenomenon and the rapidly warming Arctic is an emerging area of research.
When scientists updated legislators on the state of Minnesota’s climate change last month, it wasn’t because the state is necessarily on the precipice of catastrophe.
Republicans typically don’t invite scientists to talk when they’re in power—not even those allegedly capable of debunking global warming. Three years ago, all but one Republican member of the House refused to acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels drives climate change.
In the 2018 election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, formerly of the Hennepin County Board, claimed there’s no scientific consensus on the human impact of climate change, despite general agreement among 97 percent of scientists and 200 scientific organizations around the world.
Jim Newberger, the former state representative from Becker who ran for the U.S. Senate, speculated that global warming could be explained by natural cycles in the sun. While the sun does have an 11-year cycle in which it alternately emits slightly more or less energy, it accounts for only a miniscule change in the earth’s temperature.
There are other natural cycles that deniers cite frequently, but vaguely. There’s a 40,000-year cycle caused by the slight variation in the tilt of the earth, a 20,000-year cycle connected to the wobble of its spin-axis, and a 100,000-year cycle that depends on its orbit. Each cycle determines how much sunlight hits the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, initiating and ending ice ages.
According to these natural trends, the earth began to cool down about 5,000 years ago, but abruptly reversed course several decades ago due to man-made global warming, according to the National Climate Assessment.
People forget that scientists don’t rush to conjecture. Their views are heavily filtered by skepticism, says Twine. “We don’t believe just anything that comes out of the computer. We look at it over and over again. We run it a different way to see if we get a different answer.”
V. Choose your own adventure
About 125 years ago, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated that doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in four degrees Celsius of global temperature change. He did the math by hand, taking two years to arrive at this single number. The smartest people in the world have not been able to debunk his model.
Still, most assume that climate science is new.
In 2012, North Carolina passed a law to suppress scientists’ predictions of rising sea levels. The state is particularly exposed to hurricanes because its low-lying coastline juts into the Atlantic. Nevertheless, lawmakers claimed that climate models were not credible, so they would not act to fortify seaside towns, designate “hazard zones,” or reconsider lucrative development slated for those areas.
Six years later, the state was ill prepared for Hurricane Florence, which killed 50 people and left 3 million homes in the dark as neighborhoods submerged and toxic coal ash pits overflowed.
Even if people can’t visualize science, they do learn from disaster. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that just 42 percent of Americans were concerned about climate change. By 2018, that number had risen to 59 percent, including roughly one-third of Republicans. According to Yale University’s biannual climate opinion map, Texans, Floridians, and people along America’s shores find global warming disturbing regardless of political affiliation. It’s the landlocked Midwest that cares the least.
Oft-recited benchmarks like 2080 or 2100 give climate change the air of distant possibility. But if scientists sound agitated, it’s because they’re sounding a clarion call that humans have a small window in which to act before possibilities become inevitabilities.
The earth has warmed an average of 1 degree C since the dawn of the industrial age. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global consortium of scientific organizations, says there’s no stopping it from reaching 1.5, because a carbon dioxide molecule can stay in the atmosphere for 20 to 200 years, and global warming would continue for some time even if all emissions ground to a halt today.
Instead, scientists are chiefly concerned with halting emissions before warming reaches 2 degrees C. At that rate, the Arctic will no longer have any sea ice in summer, the last of the world’s coral reefs will die, and oceans will lose one-quarter of their species. Humanity has 11 years to act.
Injecting hope, IPCC Chair Lee Hoesung wrote in a widely published editorial that he believes it is physically and technologically possible for our species to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. But the variable is human action. Everything needs to be electric, and everything needs to come from carbon-neutral energy.
The world’s 195 nations seemed to think that was possible in 2016 when they signed the Paris Accord to drastically cut fossil fuel use. But soon after, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States—responsible for 14 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. His decision will become final in November.
In lieu of federal leadership, a confederacy of 18 states and Puerto Rico have committed to observing the Paris Accord anyway. More than 100 American cities have pledged to go 100 percent clean energy. And two weeks ago, Minnesota legislators introduced a bill to get the whole state on track, following the leads of Hawaii, California, and New Jersey.
Switching to renewable energy would be a major driver of the American economy while simultaneously contributing to conservation, says Frelich, the forest ecologist.
“Because literally what we’re doing, at the global scale it’s like coming home from work each night and taking a hammer and chopping out a piece of the wall until nothing is left. And you would never do that to your own house.”