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Getting Real About Climate Change

Updated from Groisman et al.113

The map shows percent increases in the amount falling in very heavy precipitation events (defined as the heaviest 1 percent of all daily events) from 1958 to 2007 for each region. There are clear trends toward more very heavy precipitation for the nation as a whole, and particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Credit: Updated from Groisman et al. 2005. J. Climate.

Last June's shocking flood in Northeast Minnesota fits the trend: extreme weather events are increasing in frequency in the region according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's 2009 Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States report.

The flood also fits the predictions of climate scientists, who expect continued increases in the number of large storm events. In addition to the Duluth, Minn. flood, the national news in 2012 contained multiple reports of unusual weather that included the Midwest's devastating drought, fires in Colorado, and Hurricane Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard.

The news might have covered climate science in 2012, but politics largely ignored it in deference to election fervor, the fiscal cliff, immigration policy, and international distress. And yet, as the economic impact of catastrophic weather events mounts across the nation, the political luxury of looking the other way has likely ended.

"It's time to get analytical about climate change," said Jesse Schomberg, Minnesota Sea Grant's program leader. "That's why Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant developed a community-assessment tool geared toward addressing climate
readiness." The assessment tool covers a range of categories including:

  • Infrastructure and facilities,

  • Operations and maintenance,

  • Water resources,

  • Ecosystems and habitats,

  • Tourism and recreation,

  • Community planning.

The assessment is one way that people are starting conversations and moving toward building "climate ready" communities. "Climate ready" means that communities have worked to recognize and minimize the risk of failed infrastructure, erosion, drought intolerance, fire, and whatever else a changing climate may mean. Reducing risk is regular conduct for individuals; it's a big impetus for purchasing insurance and resolving to adopt a healthier lifestyle. "For a community it means knowing where the vulnerabilities lie, and taking steps to be prepared for unexpected events and a different climate," said Schomberg. "'Climate ready' also means recognizing the potential benefit that a changing climate might bestow on a region. For example, the communities rimming Lake Superior may have a longer growing season and lower heating bills."

Photo by Diane Desotelle.

Knowing that the nation will continue to experience more heat waves, additional deluges, and unpredictable winters, what short and long term changes in
climate adaptation might your community invest in?

In communities afflicted by heat, which disproportionately affects the elderly,
children and people with medical conditions, solutions include cool refuges for people and providing extra health education. Keeping ahead of potential plagues will remain an important part of climate readiness. Along with more cases of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, epidemiologists are predicting that viruses and pathogens will flourish.

Assess Yourself!

Here are a few of the 60 questions from "A Self-Assessment to Address Climate Change Readiness in Your Community." "Yes" answers indicate a potential vulnerability to a changing climate that may warrant a more detailed assessment.

  • Is critical infrastructure (i.e, storm sewers, culverts) susceptible to extreme storm events?

  • Are there water resources that could be threatened or altered by wildfire (i.e. increased erosion and sedimentation)?

  • Can you identify aquatic plant and animal populations that would be
    negatively affected by:
    - increasing water temperatures,
    - fluctuating water levels,
    - additional volume and velocity
      of stormwater runoff?

  • Has the community experienced negative impacts to winter tourism and recreation due to climate?

For more information, contact Hilarie Sorensen, Minnesota Sea Grant, at
soren360@d.umn.edu or (218) 726-7677.

In places such as Duluth, "climate ready" could mean understanding the costs and benefits of upgrading the storm sewer systems. Most of the storm sewer systems in Duluth were designed based on rainfall data collected prior to the 1950s. What was then considered an extreme storm is now occurring regularly, causing repeated and costly damage. Plugging contemporary data into city planning models yields more realistic calculations about sewer size and placement. These calculations could fuel city plans that, among other things, might keep the next big storm from washing out roads or flooding homes.

Minnesota Sea Grant is ready and willing to assist cities, townships, and counties that wish to prepare for the climate that lies beyond 2013. The program can help communities determine their vulnerabilities to climate change and prioritize plans and projects to reduce risk from weather events that are occurring more frequently. Beyond offering the community-assessment, Sea Grant is playing a role to connect climate science with local government action by meeting with staff, decision-makers, and citizens in communities rimming Lake Superior and encouraging intra- and inter-community collaboration to plan for climate adaptations.

By Diane Desotelle
January 2013

Return to January 2013 Seiche

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