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Scientists: Minnesota weather to morph into Kansas—how fast is the question
By Eric Magnuson
Published November 10, 2005

Riding in my parent’s SUV as an anxious child in 1985, whining and wondering when we’d finally arrive at a cabin north of Brainerd from our Minneapolis suburb, my father tried making the trip easier by saying we’d be close once we saw a northern Minnesota staple: white paper birch. This guide never left me. On future trips to Duluth as an adult, I knew my destination inched closer when birch trees lined the highway. But climate change is predicted to move this place-marker.

Some scientists, particularly those who released a study in 2003 titled “Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region,” predict the birch population in northern Minnesota may disappear altogether by the end of the century. As average temperatures increase from year to year, Minnesota’s summer climate is expected to become similar to Kansas, which is more than a few hundred miles south. In a worst case scenario, Minnesota’s entire vegetation may change by century’s end. “If it warms up and drys out a little, the prairie-forest border will push north and east into the state,” says Peter Wyckoff, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota in Morris. “I don’t think anyone disagrees on that,” he adds. Some research says Minnesota’s average summer temperatures will be as much as 16 degrees hotter, possibly in the lifetime of today’s newborns. The group Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy says the state’s summer climate may be similar to Kansas as soon as 2035.

Global warming is to the world what cholesterol is to the human body: Slowly, often too slowly for the naked eye to see, it alters the system it invades, perhaps disrupting it forever. “The boreal forest will definitely be lost” due to climate change, says Lucinda Johnson, associate director at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth. As soils become drier, the prairie will expand throughout much of Minnesota. “The question is, how fast will that happen?” Wyckoff asks.

When looking at Minnesota’s vegetation on a map, the prairie hugs the state’s western border with the Dakotas and slowly widens in the southwestern corner. Researchers are concerned that Minnesota’s climate may change too rapidly this century due to global warming. Trees like the birch are adapted to the state’s northern climate. If warm climates slowly move northward, birch and other trees might be able to move along with it. But if it moves too fast, the tree populations might not be able to regenerate as the prairie chews into the state. Seasons are expected to change. We’ll have shorter and warmer winters. Minneapolis may have as many as 25 summer days per year exceeding 97 degrees by century’s end.

With longer summers, Minnesota will have an extended growing season. “[But] if you take the climate in Kansas and put it in northern Minnesota, it’s not likely that you’ll also bring the farming economy,” Johnson says, “The soil in northern Minnesota is unproductive and rocky.”

Closer to home, “Minneapolis and St. Paul will be particularly vulnerable because extremely high temperatures are now rare,” states a Union of Concerned Scientists study. And the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency mentions another report stating that temperatures 3 degrees warmer could triple heat-related deaths over an average summer in Minneapolis. Extreme heat causes about 60 deaths per summer in the city today. Kim Knowlton, of Columbia University, has studied past heat waves in major cities to predict what may happen in the future. “Looking at different heat waves in Chicago and Europe, people over 65 were the most likely to die,” Knowlton says. The elderly poor and urban poor are less likely to have air conditioning, putting them at risk during an abnormally hot day. But air conditioning poses a problem because it also contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Renowned NASA climatologist James Hansen has a different take on climate change. “The argument is made that people in the United States move all the time. They’ll move from Minneapolis to Atlanta and they can survive in quite a different climate. No doubt, there are some places where they might prefer a warmer climate,” he jokes in his office, “But in general, it seems to me that it’s unlikely to be advantageous.”

The list of effects that climate change may have on Minnesota fill numerous thick studies. Johnson says we’ll likely experience more intense storms, causing earlier spring flooding. “Rain falling on frozen soil is like rain falling on a parking lot,” pushing runoff and pollution into rivers. Disease-carrying insects will have a greater chance to live through warmer winters. Lakes will experience fewer days covered with ice. Climate change speeds a lake’s life cycle, turning it into a wetland faster than without warming. The research is less certain on whether the Great Lakes will lose water. However, it’s calculated that for every inch Lake Michigan loses, a ship must travel with 90 less metric tons of cargo. This means they lose at least $22,000 per shipment. These losses generally get passed to consumers.

The forecast isn’t certain. Many scientists believe worst case scenarios can be avoided if alternatives to gas guzzling cars become mainstreamed. “Not only is there going to be pressure from [politicians],” Hansen says, “but I think a lot of businessmen recognize that it is do-able to start getting serious about energy efficiency. China is already putting stricter efficiency standards on vehicles than the U.S., and if we want to sell vehicles to growing markets and developing countries, then we better have the technology to do that.”

Wyckoff notes how oaks on the prairie-forest border today are likely to survive through their normal life cycles. But due to various causes it’s becoming more difficult to find new trees. His office in Morris sits near the prairie’s edge. He predicts Minnesota’s shift from forest to prairie will happen later rather than sooner. He doesn’t foresee the transition happening within 30 years, however, if it does, he says with a laugh, he’ll call us in the Twin Cities to say, “The prairie is coming.” ||

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