Taking on Climate Change

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Summer 2014

It’s possible—and imperative—to adapt our way of life to the realities of climate change. Seven U experts share their action agendas.

Taking on Climate Change

By Jonathan Foley, Director, U of M Institute on the Environment, Photographs by Kurt Moses/Un Petit Monde


Minnesota’s climate, like that of every other place in the world, is changing. And it’s changing because of us. There is no doubt that the effects of human activities, especially the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through our burning of fossil fuels and our land use practices, are changing our climate. This isn’t new science. In fact, the basic physics of the greenhouse effect have been known since the mid-1800s and are widely accepted by the scientific community. And today, there is no serious scientific debate about this fundamental fact: global climate change is very real, is well understood, and is going to get worse unless we act soon.

As we move into the 21st century, changes in our climate—which are already discernible—will begin to affect many aspects of our lives. Whether by changing the way farmers grow crops, how much water we have for our growing population and economy, how cities and towns plan for extreme weather events, or how our iconic lakes and wildlife fare into the future, climate change will become a very real part of our lives. If global climate change continues unchecked, the very character of Minnesota could, in fact, change substantially.

The question before us is, what are we doing about it?

The University is a leader in thinking about climate adaptation: helping society figure out how to adapt to the changes in climate we can’t avoid. This is particularly important to our cities, agriculture, and water resources, where the impacts of climate extremes can be profound and disruptive. In particular, helping our communities become more resilient to climate changes and weather extremes is a high priority for research and education at the University.

Numerous faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the University of Minnesota, along with community partners, are playing an important role in helping us understand how to address the issues of global climate change.

“Climate change is very real, is well understood, and is going to get worse unless we act soon.” — JONATHAN FOLEY —

Minnesota scientists are conducting world-class research on exactly how our climate system is changing and what it means for our region. Interdisciplinary teams of climatologists, ecologists, hydrologists, agronomists, economists, and others are doing pioneering research on the changing climate of Minnesota and its impact on our ecosystems, lakes, wildlife, cities, and agriculture.

The University is also a world leader in transitioning the world to more renewable forms of energy, helping us avoid further greenhouse gas emissions that would worsen climate change. I expect that many of the key global innovations in renewable energy will come from Minnesota, making us one of the “Silicon Valleys” of future energy systems. This is going to be a very good thing for our economy, especially since Minnesota has no fossil fuel resources of its own and we send billions of dollars out of state each year to import coal, oil, gas, and other fuels. Why not use our own resources—wind, solar, hydro, and biomass energy—and keep that money here, where it can create more jobs and opportunities at home?

Partnerships between the University and Minnesota’s communities, nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and governments can help make this region a leader in addressing climate change challenges—not only here, but around the world. Instead of simply waiting for solutions to come from Washington, D.C., or the United Nations, Minnesotans are rolling up their sleeves and tackling one of the biggest, and most challenging, issues facing the world today.

Together, we can turn this challenge into an opportunity, helping to promote a more sustainable future for the economy and environment of Minnesota.

In February Jonathan Foley received the prestigious Heinz Award in the Environment. Citing his 20-year career in global ecology, the award committee recognized Foley as “a source of hope, fostering collaboration among key stakeholders with the goal of finding practical solutions to address the challenges of feeding the world and minimizing the environmental impact of agriculture.” In August, he will leave the University of Minnesota to become executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.

Equip Communities for Extreme Weather

By Mark Seeley,U of M Extension Climatologist, Photograph by Kurt Moses/Un Petit Monde


When the weather no longer plays by the rules, we must adapt to the new rules of the game. Weather patterns are changing. Our “new normal” includes destructive April ice storms and horrific blizzards in October.

Minnesota began statewide climate recordkeeping in the late 19th century. Of the 10 warmest years recorded, 7 took place within the last 15 years. In just one month, March 2012, we set more than 700 new warm-temperature records.

At 6 p.m. on July 19, 2011, the hottest point on Earth wasn’t Death Valley or sub-Saharan Africa. It was Moorhead, Minnesota, with a heat index of 134 degrees F (due to a dew point of 88 degrees F and an air temperature of 97 degrees F).

Across the globe, people are deciding how—not whether—to adapt. In the United States, cities along the East Coast are exploring the costs and benefits of massive sea barriers to protect their communities against the next Hurricane Sandy-scale storm. The Southwest, on the other hand, must confront shrinking water supplies as its regional population grows.

In Minnesota, we face the alternation of weather extremes—a not-so-merry-go-round of drought and flood. During 2012, 66 of Minnesota’s 87 counties were declared drought disasters by USDA and eligible for federal assistance, while in the same year, 16 counties were declared flood disasters by FEMA and eligible for federal assistance.

The increasing incidence of extreme weather creates both short-term and long-term impacts that require us to adapt to the new weather “normal.”

“Of the 10 warmest years recorded in Minnesota, 7 took place within the last 15 years.” — MARK SEELEY —

More of our precipitation comes from intense storms dropping 3 to 4 inches of rain. They punctuate increasingly drawn-out dry periods, often eroding soils and saturating crop fields. How can agriculture, part of our economic bedrock, keep its vitality and help feed us as such extremes become more common? What impact will this have in the private and public sectors?

These severe storms, sometimes delivering golf-ball-sized hail, damaging straight-line winds, and flash floods, help make Minnesota the 14th most expensive state for homeowners’ insurance. What is climate change’s long-term effect on the insurance industry? What does that mean for consumers?

According to the Minnesota State Climatology Office, southern Minnesota has had three 1,000-year floods since 2004 (evaluated based on the area covered by thunderstorms that brought 8 inches or more in 24 hours). Do we invest in more robust storm sewer systems or take our chances? How much financial exposure can communities risk?

Coming to terms with the public- and private-sector implications of climate change is difficult. But significant work is already under way. My Extension colleagues, for example, are studying how to cope with the impact of pests that can survive our milder winters and how a more highly variable water supply will affect agriculture.

A key tenet of adaptation calls on us to plan for extreme weather that was once all but unimaginable. At the same time, the commitment to adapt in no way minimizes the essential need for us to mitigate climate change. We must effectively strive to reduce the magnitude of change even as we adjust to its impact.

Public Health Gets Personal

Q&A with Kristin Raab (B.A. ’92, M.P.H. ’00, M.L.A. ’09) director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Climate and Health Program, Photograph by Kurt Moses/Un Petit Monde

By Erin Peterson


Climate change often evokes hazy visions of a grim future. But Kristin Raab’s focus is on this generation. Raab (B.A. ’92, M.P.H. ’00, M.L.A. ’09) is director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Climate and Health Program, which helps shape the state’s public health policy on climate change. It is funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Raab’s degrees from the U—a bachelor’s in political science and master’s degrees in landscape architecture and epidemiology—make her uniquely suited to understand and communicate how extreme weather affects health. She spoke with Minnesota about how the changing climate is leading to an array of measurably increased health consequences.

Why is climate change a public health issue?

We’re experiencing a number of different [consequences]. We’re seeing higher average summer temperatures and increased humidity. We’ve seen an overall association between average summer temperature and both emergency department visits and hospitalizations related to heat. In 2011, one of the warmest Minnesota summers on record, there were 1,255 emergency room visits linked to heat-related illnesses, from muscle cramps to exhaustion. That number is about three times higher than it is for cooler summers.

Because winters—well, maybe not this past one—have generally been getting warmer, we’re seeing more pests enter Minnesota, and there’s been a greater geographic spread of them. We’re seeing more tick-borne diseases, like Lyme disease, and mosquito-borne diseases, like West Nile virus. These are known as vector-borne diseases, and we’re expecting to see more of them. Shorter winters lead to other issues, too. Between 1995 and 2009, Minneapolis experienced a 16-day increase in the length of ragweed pollen season, which affects people with asthma and respiratory issues.

Another really big change is an increase in heavy precipitation events. Those so-called 100-year storms are happening a lot more frequently than they used to. Our infrastructure isn’t built for that. We’re seeing flash flooding and river flooding more often. So we’re expecting to see more injuries and illnesses directly related to floods, but also indirectly related to them, through things like mold contamination and water contamination.

How are you helping communities be better prepared?

We’ve developed the Minnesota Extreme Heat Toolkit, which is to help local public health [officials] plan for extreme heat. That might include opening a cooling center for people once a certain temperature has been reached, or sharing a map with public, air-conditioned buildings that are open so people can go there and cool off. Buses might be available for free rides to these locations.

One of the interesting things we know is that the people who tend to show up for emergency room visits are males between the ages of 15 and 34. They’re the ones who can think they’re invincible. They’re out running, or playing sports, or working outside. They’re not taking the right precautions. So we have some work to do in our messaging, because while people are familiar with vulnerable populations, like the elderly, everybody else thinks they’re fine. And they’re not.

One thing we’re doing is vulnerability mapping for extreme heat, flooding, and vector-borne diseases. For heat, that might mean people who are 65 and older who live alone, or children in poverty. For flooding, that might mean people in low-lying areas or those who have limited ability to escape floodwaters and their consequences, like the elderly or those who have limited mobility. Whenever possible, we want to do that mapping not just at the level of a ZIP code, but at a block-by-block level. We think that will help local jurisdictions do their planning for climate change.

Are local communities receptive?

When we first began [in 2009], some communities were hesitant. Many weren’t sure climate change was happening. But it’s increasingly difficult for people to ignore extreme weather events, like flooding in Duluth, and extreme heat events, like the all-time-high dew point record in Moorhead in 2011. Today, almost all the communities we work with are eager to use the resources we’ve developed.

Temperatures Flare in the Barn

By Greg Breining


In southwestern Minnesota, a 650-sow operation installed geothermal cooling to keep animals cooler and boost piglet production. Across Minnesota, turkey growers are learning to send their birds to market early when extreme heat threatens to kill them.

Those are two examples that Larry Jacobson points to as he helps livestock farmers adapt to a warmer climate. Jacobson (B.Ag.E. ’72, M.S. ’74, Ph.D. ’83), a professor and Extension engineer in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, leads the midwestern section of a five-year project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to warn farmers of the risks that a warming climate poses to their animals and offer strategies to help them adapt.

Warmer summers and more heat waves already have big impacts on farm animals. “These large, fast-growing animals produce a lot of heat and have metabolisms that are really high. If they can’t cool down at night and they get another warm day coming, they’re in trouble,” says Jacobson. A farmer who is unprepared faces financial ruin if a heat wave wipes out an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. In Minnesota, heat waves are most threatening to turkey growers. “If we get a hot spell, most of these producers are looking forward and marketing early because they know the turkeys won’t survive,” Jacobson says.

Other impacts are indirect. As warming continues, some areas may experience drought, and farmers will have to look for new varieties—or even new crops. With time, depending not only on temperature but also precipitation, Minnesota agriculture may look more like that of Kansas, with more sorghum, wheat, and barley. If corn and soybeans—common livestock feed—decline, the livestock business will change as well. “Why do we have animals here? It’s because we’ve got the feed,” says Jacobson. “If we don’t have the feed, are we going to have the animals? Probably not.”

To cope with summer heat, livestock producers can provide shade-giving shelters in feedlots, build barns with better circulation and greater insulation in the roof, and transport animals when it’s cooler. Farmers may shift to breeds that are more tolerant of heat. Higher soil temperatures will require farmers to wait until later in the fall to apply manure as fertilizer to prevent ammonia volatilization.

Animal producers may find their operations affected not only by the physical climate, but also by the consumer and regulatory climate, Jacobson says. Agriculture contributes about 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas production, much of it from cattle, which expel methane as they digest their feed. “Walmart and other grocery chains have requested that animal producers determine carbon footprints for their products because of customer demands,” says Jacobson. Becoming more energy efficient, more effectively managing manure, or even switching to different livestock can all reduce carbon footprint. (Cattle emit more greenhouse gases than swine, which produce more than chickens.)

“We’re not in the business of debating the issue of climate change. We just say this is what we’re seeing,” Jacobson says. “The farmers, producers, the ag industry—even though they’re a little more conservative and not reading Al Gore’s report on climate change by their bed stand at night, when you start talking about being more energy efficient, they understand.”

Larry Jacobson (B.Ag.E. ’72, M.S. ’74, Ph.D. ’83), helps livestock farmers adapt to a warmer climate.

Understand Our Changing Forests

By Lee Frelich, Director of the U of M Center for Forest Ecology


Minnesota occupies a unique location in the world when it comes to climate change. Because the state is situated at the crossroads of three biomes—prairie, deciduous forest, and northern coniferous forest—we are particularly sensitive to changes in the climate. Wide variations in rainfall and temperature create a balance between prairie and forest, with the prairie-forest border cutting across the state diagonally from northwest to southeast. Within the forests, a second balance exists as cold, boreal (northern) forests of spruce, fir, pine, and birch mix with, and gradually shift to, temperate forests of oak, maple, and basswood in the south.

As the climate warms, much of the state’s boreal forest will die off to be replaced by grasslands and savannas. Forest areas that remain will likely shift from boreal to temperate. All of these changes will have an impact on the habitat of many animal and plant species, and that, in turn, will create more opportunities for invasive species. Secondary effects of a warmer climate, including more droughts, forest fires, and storms, will push Minnesota’s forests in new directions.

While the prospect of these changes may be upsetting, it also makes Minnesota the most interesting place on the planet to be a forest ecologist. Research currently under way at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology shows that red maple (a temperate tree species) and European earthworms have already invaded boreal forests of Minnesota’s most iconic, remote, and pristine natural area—the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"As the climate warms, much of the state’s boreal forest will die off to be replaced by grasslands and savannas.” — Lee Frelich

While earthworms may be helpful in the garden, they can be devastating to forests because they eat fallen leaves and other decomposing matter that makes up the “duff” layer on the forest floor. In recent years, U researchers have studied the effects of earthworms on Minnesota forests and found that the reduction and/or elimination of the duff layer by invasive earthworms has led to a decline in native woodland plants and flowers. It has also led to soil erosion.

The question now is whether invasive earthworms will reinforce or resist changes caused by warming temperatures. That’s because, in the Boundary Waters, earthworms have complex effects on the environment that, to some extent, favor both temperate species, like maple, and boreal species, like spruce and birch. So the net effect on stability of the temperate-boreal forest interface is as yet unknown.

Many other urgent issues are also being investigated: When will the boreal forests of the Boundary Waters transition to temperate forests of oak and maple, to oak savanna? Which wildlife species will leave and which will move in as vegetation and habitat change? Which native species from central and southern Minnesota will occupy the future Boundary Waters and how will they get there?

As stewards of our natural areas consider the options for adapting to climate change, they will be dealing with complex questions such as when is it best to resist or direct change and when is it best to accept that resistance is futile? As they grapple with these and other issues, their choices will be informed by the innovative research now happening in forest ecology.

A Jumpstart for Future Forests

By Greg Breining

Creatures with legs, wings, and fins have at least a fighting chance to adapt to warming temperatures by expanding their ranges. But what about trees and other plants that make up a forest? The seeds of some are spread fast and far by wind and animals. But other species are nearly stuck in place. As the climate warms, familiar trees in the north woods, such as spruce, fir, red pine, and birch, are at risk of growing scarce or disappearing altogether.

Meredith Cornett (M.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’00) is investigating how to give them a helping hand. Cornett is director of conservation science in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to conserve land and water resources in the United States and 35 other countries.

“There is some reasonable climatic evidence that suggests we’re losing forest cover not just due to land management and development, but because we don’t have a suite of species that is resilient to climate change,” Cornett says.

Even a temporary loss in the number of forest species leaves a forest vulnerable to disease in the future, Cornett says. It’s also a threat in an area such as northern Minnesota that depends on a diverse, healthy forest for industry.

The stage for Cornett’s work is the Minnesota Arrowhead, the far northeastern region of the state, home of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the North Shore. For the last two springs, planters for the Conservancy spread out through small openings in the pine, spruce, and aspen forest and plunged steel hoedads into the rocky soil, planting 88,000 red and bur oaks and some white pine—warmer weather species—on about 135 scattered sites in Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties.

Cornett will assess how the trees survive and grow in the years ahead. It takes a century to grow a forest or to really know if an intervention worked—but neither she nor other researchers have that kind of time. If the trees do well over the next several years, the Conservancy and land managers elsewhere might plant many more of these warmer-weather trees as a way to jumpstart the forest of the future.

To be sure, the Conservancy’s approach is cautious. Some other researchers are investigating the possibility

of bringing entirely new tree species into areas that are likely to be suited to them, a process called “assisted migration”—a very controversial topic, Cornett says. “Because it is so controversial we thought we should err on the side of being conservative,” says Cornett.

Cornett and the Conservancy are also exploring ways to enhance the resilience of forests, such as planting in clearings or under the canopy of mature trees. It’s a method she calls “ecosystem silviculture.”

The changing climate, Cornett says, has created a crisis of confidence for ecological restorationists such as she, who traditionally measured their work against what existed before industrial-era humans showed up. “What should our new goals for restoration ecology be, in light of the fact that replicating historical conditions is no longer going to be possible?” she asks.

In effect, climate change is moving the goalposts. “There needs to be more human intervention,” Cornett says. “We are in a relationship with nature, and it’s not always going to be possible to put things back exactly the way they were, but we need to put things back together in a way that we can still have a functioning, viable Earth going forward.”

Meredith Cornett (M.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’00) is investigating how to give familiar trees in the north woods a helping hand.

Forge a Holistic Energy Strategy

By Hari Osofsky, Professor and Fesler-Lampert Chair in Urban and Regional Affairs, U of M Law School


This country is in the midst of a major energy transition. New and expanding technologies—particularly in the context of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) and deep water drilling—have lowered natural gas prices while the coal industry faces new regulatory pressure to reduce its environmental impact. In response to greenhouse gas regulations, the automobile industry is building vehicles with better fuel efficiency and fewer emissions.

At the same time, the electrical grid needs an upgrade in order to be resilient in the face of cyberattacks and climate change. Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power, has become more commercially viable. But wind and solar can only be integrated fully into the electricity grid if adequate transmission lines are built and real-time markets include them.

Although these transitions are critical economically and environmentally, people rarely take the time to “look behind the plug.” We want cheap and reliable energy to fuel our cars, turn on the lights, and power our electronic devices. Only occasionally, during high-profile events like Hurricane Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, do we turn our attention to energy issues. But even at those moments, we rarely discuss the energy system as a whole.

Our political debates are focused on hot-button issues such as climate change, coal, or fracking, with little mention of how the pieces fit together. We need to identify a holistic strategy for moving forward, but complexity and institutional fragmentation serve as major barriers. For example, each source of energy is treated separately by our legal system. Electricity and transportation have their own legal regimes. We are not even consistent in how we distribute legal authority among levels of government. We provide federal eminent domain authority for natural gas pipelines, for example, but handle new electricity transmission lines on a state-by-state basis. Deep water drilling is largely regulated federally, while fracking is mostly regulated by states.

“Our political debates are focused on hot-button issues such as climate change, coal, or hydraulic fracturing, with little mention of how the pieces fit together.” - Hari Osofsky

As a law professor focused on energy and climate change, I feel lucky to be working on these issues in Minnesota at this critical moment. Ellen Anderson (J.D. ’86), senior advisor on energy and environment to Governor Mark Dayton, has called this the “decade of energy transformation.”

In addition to teaching and writing about climate change and energy, I am excited to be launching the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab as its inaugural director. The Lab will work in partnership with leaders in government, business, and nonprofit organizations to advance energy transition through collaborative law and policy projects that address core areas of energy transition. Our aim is to become the go-to place for community–University partnership on better energy law and policy. Projects will focus on fostering greater energy efficiency, use of cleaner and more renewable sources, evolution and integration of the transportation and electricity systems, and approaches that maximize energy and environmental justice. Together, we will work toward solutions to our society’s most vexing energy challenges.

Modernize the Electrical Grid

By Massoud Amin, Director of the U of M Technological Leadership Institute, Photograph by Kurt Moses/Le Petite Monde


On any given day in the United States, about half a million people are without power for two or more hours. Once hailed by the National Academy of Engineering as the most influential engineering innovation of the 20th century, the North American power grid operates with technology primarily from the 1960s and ’70s.

In recent decades the number and frequency of weather-related major outages have increased. Between the 1950s and ’80s, outages increased from two to five each year; from 2008 to 2012, outages increased to between 70 and 130 per year. Meanwhile, electricity needs are growing fast. Twitter alone adds more than 2,500 megawatt hours of demand globally per year. It is projected that the world’s electricity supply will need to triple by 2050 to keep up with demand. That will require a significant commitment.

In the past decade electricity risk has increased due to aging infrastructure, lack of investment and policies conducive to modernization, and the threat posed by terrorism and climate change. As the climate changes, the variability of weather events has increased. We are going to see more extreme events. And we’ll see them with greater frequency. Hurricane Sandy appears to be an example of this.

In the aftermath of Sandy, questions were raised about power restoration in relation to extreme weather and climate change. It needs to be understood that a massive, physical assault on Hurricane Sandy’s scale is bound to overwhelm the power infrastructure, at least temporarily. No amount of money or technology can guarantee uninterrupted electric service under such circumstances.

“We’ve wasted 15 years arguing . . . while our global competitors adapt and innovate.” — Massoud Amin

It’s also important to remember that the United States is just beginning to adapt to a wider spectrum of risk. Cost-effective investments to reinforce the grid and support resilience will vary by region, by utility, by the legacy equipment involved, and even by the function and location of equipment within a utility’s service territory.

The electrical grid must change drastically. We need a grid that will effectively and securely meet demands of a pervasively digital society in the face of climate change and other extreme events while ensuring a high quality of life and fueling economic growth.

The cost of a smarter grid is estimated at $340 billion to $480 billion. But it should immediately yield $70 billion per year in reduced costs from outages. In a year with frequent hurricanes, ice storms, and other weather events, benefits will be even higher. Currently, outages from all sources cost the U.S. economy somewhere between $80 billion to $188 billion annually. A smarter grid would reduce the cost of outages by about $49 billion per year, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12 to 18 percent by 2030. In addition, it would increase system efficiency by over 4 percent—that’s another $20.4 billion a year.

We’ve wasted 15 years arguing about the roles of the public and private sectors while our global competitors adapt and innovate. We need to renew public-private partnerships, cut red tape, and reduce the cloud of uncertainty on the return on investment of modernizing infrastructure. When the nation has made such strategic commitments in the past, the payoffs have been huge. Think of the interstate highway system, the lunar landing project, and the Internet.

Meeting each of those challenges has produced world-leading economic growth by enabling commerce, technology development, and a mix of the two. In the process we’ve developed a highly trained, adaptive workforce. Now, we must decide whether to build electric power and energy infrastructures that support a 21st century’s digital society, or be left behind as a 20th century industrial relic.

Imagine New Ways to Live

By Thomas Fisher, Thomas Fisher is Professor of Architecture and Dean of the College of Design

In the design fields, Edward Mazria, an architect in New Mexico, leads a movement called Architecture 2030. He argues that the built environment, which includes buildings, factories, and vehicles, is responsible for much of the greenhouse gas that we generate. He sees 2030 as the date by which we need to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

That will be a challenge with so many people living in sprawled conditions and commuting a long way to work and shop. Meeting the 2030 goal presents us with an enormous dilemma: How do we greatly reduce our ecological footprint with so much invested in our unsustainable ways of living?

The new economy emerging in our midst may help us make this shift. The economist Jeremy Rifkin has argued that we have moved away from the second industrial revolution, based on an economy of mass production and consumption, toward what he calls the “Third Industrial Revolution,” with an economy of mass customization that utilizes 3D printing and other digital technologies. This democratization of production turns every consumer into a potential producer of goods and services, as ordinary people will have the tools to innovate and create. This seems especially true of the millennials, who think, “If I can customize something, why would I buy something that everybody else has?”

This new economy will encourage us to make things in new ways and to live and work in much closer proximity to each other, so we can more easily share equipment, ideas, and innovations. This in turn will lead to increasing density in cities all over the world. Some experts predict that eventually, over 80 percent of the U.S. population will be living in urban areas, and this will have enormous climate benefits because cities have lower ecological footprints. For example, in cities, we can walk, bike, or take light rail to where we need to go, and we can heat and cool buildings more easily when closer together.

This economically driven urbanization has real survival value. In my most recent book, Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design, I write about how we face a number of rapidly increasing stresses on the systems that underlie modern civilization, systems whose fracture-critical nature makes them vulnerable to sudden and catastrophic collapse. The accumulation of greenhouse gases and carbon in the atmosphere is one such threat. The faster we can reduce this stress on our planetary system, the sooner we will secure our future.

The best way to deal with these stresses involves innovation. The innovations that come out of major research institutions like the University of Minnesota represent a kind of survival mechanism, enabling us to find, fairly quickly, new ways of existing on this planet that don’t have such a negative impact on the very things we depend on. The design community has helped create a world that does a lot of damage to global ecosystems and we need to help find viable alternatives.

Remember Winter

By Kenny Blumenfeld,Visiting professor and Research Associate, U of M Department of Geography, Photograph by Kurt Moses/Un Petit Monde


I adore, study, and do a lot of outreach about extreme and hazardous weather in the Upper Midwest. One of my biggest concerns about climate change in Minnesota is that we are losing our winters. I know that might sound insane, given that this last winter ranked among the top 10 coldest at just about every station in the region, where many towns challenged or set records for number of days below zero. It was unlike anything an entire generation of Minnesotans has experienced. So yes, it was an impressive season.

But what this winter did not do is equally striking and one of the key symptoms of our changing climate. For the 17th winter in a row, Minneapolis failed to drop below minus 25 degrees F, something that used to happen about 12 times per decade. Remember that “polar vortex” episode? Well, its coldest day in Minneapolis was only the 173rd coldest on record. No station in the Upper Midwest set an all-time record low at any point this winter. If you look at the data, the magnitude of the cold was surprisingly tame, given its persistence.

And this bizarre winter—standing alone among its contemporaries, yet lacking true extremes—comes just two years after its even more extreme opposite in 2011-12, when all the way from November through March we did not merely break warm temperature records; we obliterated them. If you look at the previous three decades, it is clear that Minnesota’s iconic season is not in good health. What used to be a predictable season has now become erratic.

The confusion this winter may have caused is like what happens when an aging baseball slugger, well past his prime, has one big year and fans think, quite wishfully: “He’s back!” But it isn’t so. One big season can’t stop the inevitable. The performance of this winter does not mean we have escaped our rapidly warming climate any more than a late-career home run surge suggests our slugger has escaped the passage of time. All baseball players retire. But are we ready to lose our winters?

Photographer Alec Johnson and I have attempted to address this question in a documentary film about winter in Minnesota that we will screen this coming fall. In the film we examine the meteorology of winter, but we also ask how we relate to winter, who it makes us, and who we would be without it.

In talking to Minnesotans about winter, we found that whether it’s regarded as relentlessly punishing or calming and pure, with few exceptions, this enigmatic season defines us. It is woven into our activities, our moods, and how we eat, sleep, and dress. We live with it and it lives within us. It is part of who we are. Sure, it makes some people question why we live here, but many of those same people would never move elsewhere.

The Minnesota winter is iconic. Its severity is recognized nationally, and Minnesotans are proud to have those bragging rights. It is a resource, a state treasure, and we celebrate the way it annoys and torments us. Winter plays the part of the lovable villain that we don’t really want to see go. Yet here it is, in a frail state, with its best years behind it.

And who will we be when it’s gone?

Kenny Blumenfeld (B.S. ’01, M.A. ’05, Ph.D. ’08) is a research director at ORC International and the hazardous weather research lead for Hennepin County Emergency Management. In 2014 he was visiting professor and research associate, U of M Department of Geography


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