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Adapting to Climate Change

The amount of infrastructure supporting modern societies makes adapting to climatic changes challenging but still possible. People and communities in Minnesota and around the Lake Superior Basin should be planning for a different environment over the next century. Ideally, we will all adopt measures to reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems to expected changes. Some experts think that the Earth’s ecological systems may be less resilient to climatic fluctuations and changes because of multiple stressors.

Change can create opportunities. Adapting may also take the form of capitalizing on higher wind speeds, longer growing seasons, and new technologies. Below, see what Minnesota Sea Grant’s extension educators think that adaption might mean for...

Coastal communities: Coastal engineers believe there is a danger of under-planning using current weather extremes to define the capacity of infrastructure such as stormwater drains and sturdiness of shoreline structures such as breakwalls. Some climatologists think global warming will speed up the water cycle so that weather moves faster. Undersized infrastructure—such as stormwater systems designed for the climate of 30 years ago—cannot handle the intense rains and higher winds that coastal communities are experiencing. The overload will lead to pipe/culvert blowouts, more erosion, flooding of roads and properties, increased potential for bridge and road washouts, and increased replacement and maintenance costs to deal with these issues. Along with more flooding, communities can expect to battle more fires. The frequency of forest fires correlates closely to temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture. Finding solutions to the infrastructure problem and increased fire frequency helps us adapt.

Shipping: The Great Lakes fleet could have operated year-round in most of the last ten years. An extended shipping season would offset the lighter loads ships will be carrying if water levels drop. As fiercer storms bombard coastal streams and shorelines, erosion will contribute more sediment to nearshore areas. The current price for dredging could seem like a bargain. Physical limits (like Lake Superior's bed of hard rock) will prevent dredging in some areas if water levels fall. Knowing that new disposal strategies are needed, Duluth's port authority and sanitary district are exploring ways to package and sell dredge material. New vessels could be designed with lower drafts, wider beams, and to include features such as cleaner emissions and ballast water treatment systems.

Recreation: The bad news is that revenues from current winter recreation will decline. Natural resource managers predict changes in coldwater fisheries. Shipwrecks could deteriorate more rapidly in warmer water. More dredging around public accesses and private boat landings will be required. Public health professionals anticipate higher incidences of heat-related illnesses, and diseases associated with ticks and mosquitoes. The good news is the summer season will be longer, and the milder conditions during spring and fall could extend visitor traffic and reduce heating bills. Gardeners will enjoy a zone shift that will enable them to grow a wider variety of plants. Extended warm weather promises to lure boating and camping enthusiasts out more often and farther afield. However, park and rescue workers caution that people and their boats might be woefully unprepared and ill-suited for the conditions Lake Superior can throw at them, especially with the prospect of more intense storms and winds.

Lake Superior's fisheries: With a longer growing season, fish in the salmon family (and their prey) could become bigger and more abundant. Whitefish and trout will follow their optimum temperature into deeper offshore areas. The backbone of Lake Superior's commercial fisheries – whitefish – experience better reproductive success when their eggs are protected by winter ice, so diminishing ice cover is concerning. Invasive species are expected to take over larger portions of changing aquatic and terrestrial habitat. Because North Shore streams will flow more erratically and carry higher sediment loads, brook trout could struggle. (Unlike streams along the South Shore, the flow of North Shore tributaries depends much more on rainfall than groundwater sources.)

You: Read Spencer Reiss’s article in Wired Magazine. Dec 2009. Climate Change Is Inevitable — It’s Time to Adapt. As Reiss suggests, necessity is the mother of invention. www.wired.com/magazine/2009/11/st_essay_globalwarming/

Please direct questions about adapting to climate change to a Minnesota Sea Grant extension educator.


This page last modified on July 08, 2010     © 1996 – 2017 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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