It was poignantly relevant and timely that Monday’s virtual Rosenmeier Forum should come on the heels of an unseasonably cold and blustery spring snowfall for the lakes area.
The virtual seminar Monday, April 19, represented a doubleheader of sorts, with participants treated to the expertise of Paul Douglas, a veteran meteorologist, alongside his friend and peer, Dr. Mark Seeley, a climatologist formerly with the University of Minnesota. The two explored the intricate relationship between weather and climate patterns during their presentation “The Climate Conundrum: Threats and Opportunities for Minnesota's North Woods.”
During the virtual seminar, Douglas and Seeley said they would present the micro and macro explanations for how climate change is transforming the world at large, as well as here in the Brainerd lakes area. The two men discussed the manifold signs of climate change in the lakes area, how that looks to affect residents in coming years, as well as opportunities for addressing problems that may arise.
So, why did a mid-April snowfall fit a seminar about climate change so well? Because, Seeley and Douglas explained, while northern Minnesota is gradually becoming hotter, with visible changes to its natural ecosystems, climate change is manifesting in patterns of unusual, unpredictable and extreme weather phenomena that weren’t present here 30, 50 or 100 years ago. Yes, that may include frigid temperatures in typically warm times of the year.
For example, just ask a snowmobile enthusiast, Douglas observed. No amount of science skepticism can change the fact that yearly snowfall is becoming increasingly sporadic and inconsistent with each passing winter, and this doesn’t bode well for an outdoor pastime that needs a solid, well-established foundation of packed snow in order to work. These changes also show up in what people consider newsworthy nowadays.
“Statewide, since the 1970s, we've been on a downhill slope,” Douglas said. “It still gets below zero, but we don't have the intensity or the frequency of subzero lows that we had decades ago. It wasn't that long ago, routinely, even in the Twin Cities, it would get down to an air temperature of 25-30 degrees below. Now it gets below zero and that's newsworthy. News stations lead with that.”
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to predict how weather patterns will emerge, Douglas noted, while Seeley observed that central Minnesota is experiencing a paradigm shift in terms of what trees, plants and animals thrive here best. The short version? Generally speaking, these organisms typically favored climates that were notably more temperate than Minnesota historically has been. As time goes on, the Upper Midwest’s distinction as “America’s Siberia” is becoming increasingly tenuous.
Although, Seeley later noted, while the complexion of Minnesota is changing rapidly, it may yet be a preferable environment to many areas of the south and southwest, where volatile weather patterns and increasingly arid conditions are becoming imminent problems.
Since the 1970s, the state’s yearly coldest temps have warmed about 12 degrees or so, Seeley said, while more than 30-40% of the country has experienced extreme drought, extreme flooding or other extreme weather patterns in the last year. Back when bell-bottom jeans were all the rage, Seeley said, this figure sat around 10-15% per year. These patterns of extreme weather emerge in the form of floods, tornadoes, heat waves, deepening polar vortexes, violent thunderstorms, hailstorms, blizzards, droughts and just about everything in between.
The discussion took on some political angles as well as Douglas — a self-avowed conservative and devoutly religious — noted he’s made a mission of challenging science denialism, particularly the kind that springs up among conservatives and people of religious inclination. This skepticism, he said, is completely unwarranted. It’s baseless in the face of mountains of scientific evidence. Likewise, Douglas said, the Bible calls for people to be good stewards of the world and protecting the natural environment fits that ethos like a glove.
“I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's coming,” said Douglas, who also expressed optimism in booming green energy industries and the cost-effectiveness of electric vehicles as signs that measures to combat climate change are not only necessary, but affordable, practical and even convenient. “Every threat is an opportunity. We should be debating solutions — conservative solutions, liberal solutions, centrist solutions. Let's not debate the science, let’s debate the solutions.”
In his own presentation, Seeley noted different schools of thought have made it challenging to get people on the same page in terms of their understanding of climate change and how it factors in the world at large. Climate change is real, he said, the evidence bears this out time and time again. The question then, is not whether it’s an issue, he said, the question is what we do about it.
“We have differences or disparities in emotion, especially how we view risk,” Seeley said. “Ethics is another very important disparity in terms of what we use for our frame of reference, in terms of ethics, and looking at that either at the individual level, the community level, or some higher level. And then of course, our own politics. … These should not be ignored, in my opinion, they should be acknowledged, because they're disparities that make it a challenge for us to talk to each other.”