As weather patterns and climate trends continue to change and evolve over the next century, what can we expect to occur in our landlocked state, Minnesota? On the west coast, a record breaking drought had caused record breaking wild fire seasons for the last couple of years. In the southeast, more and more powerful hurricanes continue to hit major population centers, each time inflicting tens of billions in damages. The most recent hurricane to have made landfall as of this writing was Hurricane Ian in September of 2022. Early estimates currently point towards over $70 billion in damages with entire neighborhoods and communities wiped off of the map.
Although these types of natural disasters have rarely effected MN, our weather patterns and climate trends have changed over the last 100 years and will continue to change and evolve over the next century. One of the things that makes it difficult for Minnesotans to recognize a changing climate is that our own climate is highly variable. We are all used to temperatures above 100 degrees in the peak of summer and temperatures that fall far below 0 in the winters. This makes it difficult to discern if one year is hotter, colder, wetter, or dryer than years past. However, thanks to extensive climate pattern tracking in the State of MN going back to late 19th century, we are able to reflect on historical weather patterns and pick out a few clear trends. The biggest of these trends is that the state is, on average, getting warmer and wetter.
One way that we can track this is by looking at frequency and size of large precipitation events. For example, a ‘large’ rainfall event in 1916 was on average 2 inches of precipitation. While in 2020, the average ‘large’ rainfall event is now 2.4 inches of rain. Perhaps more startling though is the difference between the largest rainfall events recorded in the first part of the 20th century compared to now in the first part of the 21st century. In 1916, the largest rainfall events typically only had 2.4 inches of precipitation. However, in 2019, rainfall events across Minnesota clocked in at over 10 inches of rain. Additionally, the frequency of so called “100-year rain events” has also increased. Between when records were first officially kept in the late 1800’s and 1952, not a single 100-year event was recorded. But since the year 2000, 8 of these events have been recorded.
On average, the state is getting warmer too, but in less obvious ways. Between 1895 and 2019 the average annual temperature rose by 3 degrees Fahrenheit. However, this change is most prominent in the average winter low temperature which rose by 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, summer high temperatures have only risen by about 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, what are the impacts that these changing climate conditions will have on our environment and more importantly on the largest business in our region, agriculture. While warmer and wetter weather may at first seem like a good thing for our agricultural production, there are some indirect impacts which still threaten agriculture as we know it in Stevens County.
When looking at trends and future climate models, the increased precipitation will likely be most pronounced in the shoulder seasons, during spring and fall. Prior to living in Morris, I had never experienced a harvest season before or the mad dash to get all of the crops out of the field before it gets too cold or too wet. But over the last couple weeks, farmers around the county have been racing the clock trying to get crops out of the ground before the first freeze occurred and before the it would rain. So in a future with warmer temperatures and increased rain during the harvest and planting seasons, agricultural production yields will become more and more variable. Increased rainfall in the spring will also impact the planting and early growing season. Although a rising average temperature could mean that farmers could start planting earlier, increased spring rain will likely make it more difficult for planting to occur even if temperatures are in the right spot. Additionally, this increased rain in the spring can exacerbate erosion and nutrient runoff. Limiting top soil erosion has always been a top issue for farmers, but fields, especially those tilled in the fall, will be subject to greater erosion with increased spring rainfall.
Another indirect effect of a changing climate is the changing range of insects and weeds. For example, kudzu was introduced to the southern US as a field cover. However, it is so good at covering up other plants that it has worked its way further and further northward as the climate across the US has warmed. Kudzu specifically poses a threat to soybean production as it is a carrier of Asian Soybean Rust. This disease effects the soybean plant leaves and causes them to ‘rust’ in color. The reason this disease is so dangerous is that it can cause 50% yield losses in effected crops.
So given all of these dangers? What is Morris and Stevens County doing to address these changing climate and weather patterns? Earlier this year, the City of Morris, Stevens County, and other stakeholders from the Morris Model engaged in a community resiliency building planning session and produced a Community Resiliency Building plan. This plan details assets and strengths and challenges and areas for improvement. There are also regenerative agricultural practices that can limit the amount of erosion and while also keeping critical flood management habitats safe and healthy.
This article was originally published in the Stevens County Times
My position with the City of Morris is funded through a grant from the ENRTF. To learn more, head to https://www.legacy.mn.gov/environment-natural-resources-trust-fund