We did not look specifically at crop yields, in part because there are a lot of other factors besides a longer growing season that can affect yields. You mentioned a lot of those factors. The Risky Business analysis does predict an initial boost for Minnesota, but you're right -- there's a lot of other factors that could actually hurt yields.
Is it true rabbits are moving north as it warms and their food supply area increases… or it is just my imagination? -- Public Insight member
Again, I had to forward this question to an expert, Ron Moen, who's a researcher at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute. Here's what he said:
“Over the last few years snowshoe hare densities have been increasing, based on pellet counts I've been doing, and also more general information from others.
Cottontail rabbit could be increasing in densities around areas with human developments, and some people I know have indicated they are now seeing cottontails in increasing numbers along the north shore between Two Harbors and Duluth.”
Well, I'm certainly not a farming expert, but in reporting about agriculture and what it might look like in the future, some key themes came up:
One was diversification -- planting a larger variety of crops, planting cover crops and perennial crops to make fields more resilient. There are some U researchers working on a project that would provide a market for some of these newer crops through biofuels and bioproducts. Another theme that came out of my reporting was having livestock and crops -- if prices go down, you can at least use them to feed your animals. And there's something new some farmers are trying -- ag tourism. Inviting urban dwellers to come see the farm and experience something new. Just one more type of revenue.
Since meteorological records have only been kept for approximately 140 years, how do we know that there is a long term change in the climate? Timothy Fry - Baxter, MN
We put that question to climatologist Mark Seeley and here's what he said:
"We have been gathering data long enough in so many places that we can actually test the statistical significance of recent climate extremes and variations. In most cases we find that the behavior (patterns of seasonality for example) as well as the measured values of extremes (the 10 inch rain at Duluth and Two Harbors over June 19-20, 2012) are statistically significant and not a matter of random variation. It is important to understand that our climate behaviors and the measured extremes of recent decades are therefore outside the bounds of the past 150 years in Minnesota. Since we manage our natural resources (waters, soils, forests) and our infrastructure (energy, transportation, public health, food production systems) based on climate behaviors of the past, these changes mandate that we adapt. Further, since these changes are coming at us so fast and with such extreme amplitude we should also consider how to mitigate some of the drivers of these climate changes, like changes in the landscape and changes in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. More and more finger printing studies point to these features as causes for the changes we are measuring. We have the brains and technology to cope with this, let's use them!"
Well, we didn't address this issue in our reporting. But clearly population has a major impact on our greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving global climate change. Just looking at Minnesota, nearly 20% of our emissions come from agriculture; 31% come from electric power. So the more people there are, the more food we need to grow, the more electric power we need to generate.
Right, we didn't research overpopulation much, but if you look at what world leaders are focused on to address climate change, it's not birth control, it's reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy.
How will climate change affect lakes and water quality? - PIN Member
Warmer air temperatures will lead to warmer water temperatures, which determine which fish species can live in an area and how fast they can grow. Lake levels are expected to decrease over the long term due to higher evaporation rates and longer ice-free periods. According to the DNR, In the 2000s, blue-green algae bloomed in some remote wilderness lakes in Minnesota and nearby states. Such blooms have never before been recorded and are not evident in sediment cores dating back to the 1600s. Research suggests the blooms are likely caused by a warming climate, and are expected to increase in the future.
But the bigger impact could come from changes in precipitation. Minnesota is seeing 37% more of its precipitation now in heavy rain events. That trend is expected to continue. That can increase runoff of pollutants and sediment into lakes and streams. Flooding can also have serious impacts on stream channels.
Why do you feel the need to focus on climate change when there are much more immediate environmental issues that need attention? I.e. over use of road salts, heavy metals, overuse of flouesant light bulbs, over use of irrigation, invasive species..... Jordan Lockman, Maple Grove
It’s true that a couple degrees change in temperature doesn’t seem like a lot. But it’s already having an impact. In addition, the changes we’ve seen in Minnesota’s climate and are expected to see in the future can affect many of those other “immediate” environmental concerns you mentioned. For example, are heavier spring rains washing more of those road salts into our lakes and rivers? Are we having to use more road salt because of changes in winter precipitation patterns, or an increase in freezing rain with temperature rise?
Invasive species are another area heavily influenced by climate change. We’re already seeing changes in our ecosystems in Minnesota, and whenever there’s some kind of disturbance, that’s when invasive plants get to work. Some of these invasive weeds are better suited for the changing climate than native species. But don’t worry, MPR News is committed to covering many of these environmental issues that seem to have more immediacy.
Amy on Facebook asks: Why do people not understand how detrimental eating meat and consuming dairy is to our environment?
It is true that meat is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, especially if it involves cows. Cows emit methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. About 19 percent of emissions in Minnesota are attributed to agriculture, and state officials expect MN's livestock numbers will continue to grow.
It's an important issue globally that we will have to answer moving forward. As China and other countries develop, and as more and more people move into the middle class, they're demanding more and more meat, which requires more resources and generates more emissions.
We are getting a lot of question about what action people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. What's the best advice you've heard?
Get an energy audit. You can often get one for free through your local utility. You will likely learn some low cost ways to save energy, and money, in your home. Buildings in Minnesota take a lot of energy to keep warm.
And if you've already worked on efficiency, one of the newest things available in Minnesota is the ability to participate in a community solar garden. By subscribing to one of these, you can offset all of the emissions you generate from electricity use in your home. Xcel Energy has seen strong interest in that program so far.
Are the birches on the North Shore of Lake Superior dying off due to a long-term warming of the Arrowhead Region? -- PIN Member
Here’s a response from Lee Frelich, forest ecologist with the University of Minnesota. “Paper birch is very abundant along the north shore, and the species does well in cool moist soil conditions. Warm and dry soil conditions damage the roots, leading to susceptibility to many different insect pests and diseases and high mortality rates. I believe that more frequent and longer droughts and higher evaporation associated with a warmer climate are a major contributing factor to these warm, dry soil conditions and high mortality recently observed. However, there are other causes, including that some of the trees are quite old and invasion of European earthworms that disturb the roots.”
I was actually quite surprised to find that Minnesota, for as much as we've done, is still so far behind our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. Considering the success of our renewable portfolio standard, I would have assumed we were further along.
For me it was the connection between increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and weed growth, especially stuff like ragweed that a lot of people are allergic to. Even though I had learned that carbon is a plant fertilizer back in biology class, I hadn't really thought about the connection with climate change. It was fascinating to talk to a USDA researcher about how ragweed and other weeds actually respond BETTER to increased CO2 than some more desirable plants.
I was struck most by the way the debate about this topic has shifted. Eight years ago the state was pretty gung ho about trying to reduce its carbon emissions, and people who talked about needing to adapt to change that was inevitable were kind of booted out of the room for "giving up." Today it's pretty well accepted that adaptation to change should be a big component of policy action.
It was also really interesting to hear how so many people/communities/agencies are adapting to changes in the climate they're seeing, even if they're not calling it that. Cities are promoting "weather resilient" tourism, building more "resilient" infrastructure better equipped to handle large storms, etc. Land owners are planting white pines instead of spruce or red pine. People often don't see this in terms of climate change, yet the actions they're taking are still adapting to the changes we expect to see.
What are the ways by which Minnesota can increase its resilience to climate change in the long term while improving its quality of life and advancing its climate mitigation efforts in the near term? -- Patrick Hamilton from Saint Paul
If this is the Patrick Hamilton of St. Paul that I know, he should be answering his own question!
It’s a good question. Those looking at the impacts of climate change in Minnesota talk a lot about “co-benefits.” What are things we can do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions that also improve our quality of life? Trees are a great example. They pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while also providing shade and boosting property values. Are you more likely to want to walk on a street lined with trees, especially in the summer when it’s hot? If so, that could mean the difference between walking or driving, which has further emissions implications. Trees also make us more resilient by soaking up heavy rains that are more common in our changed climate.
Advocates of clean energy and increasing the state’s renewable energy standard also talk about the dual benefits of that policy, in terms of decreasing our carbon emissions, while at the same time growing our economy by generating energy locally rather than having to import it from other states or other countries. David Thornton with the MPCA told us Minnesota spends $18 billion every year on energy imports. In addition, coal-fired power plants emit other pollutants that can affect people’s health.
Is it true that the disappearing Siberia sea ice means polar vortex is here to stay? -- Anonymous
Oh man, going to have to take a deep breath before answering this one.
I’m going to have to give our other participants some context for what I THINK you’re asking. The “polar vortex” just refers to the air mass at the North Pole. After last winter, when it was really cold, the mass media’s use of the term caught on so a lot of people associate frigid temperatures with the polar vortex.
Now I’ll explain how SOME scientists think sea ice in the arctic could be related to how that arctic air can reach mid-latitudes (where we live). We know the arctic has warmed more than the tropics, and scientists believe that has to do with snow and ice reflecting the sun’s rays back outward. When there’s less sea ice, the heat from the sun gets absorbed, exacerbating the warming. The difference in temperature between the tropics and the poles can affect the jet stream, which are these rivers of wind that bring us different kinds of weather. Some researchers believe that the shrinking difference in temperature between the poles and the tropics is making the jet stream wavier, which could slow down weather patterns going from west to east. The frigid weather that stuck around for weeks in 2014 could be related to that, they say.
BUT there are other researchers who are dubious of this link between “polar amplification” and the jet stream, and some point out that long stretches of freezing temperatures like we had last year are much LESS likely in a changed climate.
How is climate change going to impact our northern forests? More fires? Fewer pines? -- Anonymous
There is strong evidence that climate change has already shifted the ranges of plant species, and increased the occurrence of fires, insect pests, and invasive plants. Research suggests boreal tree species like balsam fir and spruce will be especially negatively impacted by warmer temperatures. Other trees like birch, aspen and red pine are also projected to migrate north. More temperate species including red maple and red oak are projected to be climate change “winners” in Minnesota. Researchers have already documented red maples migrating and “invading” patches of adjacent boreal forest. Some scientists fear that invasive buckthorn could colonize northern Minnesota’s forests if maple, oak and other species can’t move in quickly enough to take the place of declining boreal species.
Are the effects we’re seeing really of mostly normal variation? - Anonymous
Mark Seeley responded to this: "The measured effects (impacts) from climate change in our region are real and significant. Though some of this might be attributed to so-called normal climate variations, much of it is associated with variation that is beyond what we have measured over the past 150 years.
Just normal variation? No. There is some natural variation involved, to be sure. But climate scientists have sophisticated models that can calculate what our climate would look like with us humans and without us humans. They factor in the sun, volcanoes and other variables. They have concluded that the rapid warming we've seen, especially over the last 50 years, is very likely driven primarily by human activities, specifically burning fossil fuels and emitting gases like CO2 that trap heat.
One point some people make is that while there has been significant variation in the history of the earth, what we're talking about now is unprecedented during the existence of modern humans.
We are coming to a close. One last question: After digging into this series, what questions do you have that you hope to answer about climate change in your future reporting?
Something we touched on but I would like to explore more is the interaction between climate change and invasive species. I'm also interested in reporting on the impacts of climate change on Native Americans. A lot of the cultural resources they rely on - birch, moose, lake trout, etc. - are threatened by climate change.
One area that I'd like to explore further is water. What changes in climate are affecting our drinking water supplies, especially groundwater? Are our responses to adapt to changes in precipitation having a negative impact on our lakes and rivers? In my reporting I identified one practice -- agricultural drainage -- that could fit into that category, unless it's done in a way that slows how much water rushes to streams and rivers. There are other examples as well.
I'd like us to pursue ways in which businesses, local governments, big governments and others are weaving into their normal operations ways to deal with climate change, figuring out the economics of change, perhaps valuing existing resources differently.
We'd love to hear people's ideas on other topics we should pursue! Send me or Dan a note!
Thanks for chatting with us today!
Thanks for your questions everyone!
Good to have this conversation. Thanks to all.