Climate change will cause northland adjustments

Lake Superior in winter Climate change, although some may refer to it as global warming, may be having a profound affect on Duluth and surrounding communities, but it’s important to understand that what’s happening is beyond just global warming.

“Climate change is a better way to describe what is happening to our climate than global warming is,” said Hilarie Sorensen, a Climate Change Extension Educator for Minnesota Sea Grant (MN Sea Grant).

“Global warming has become a highly politicized term and carries certain connotations with it," Sorensen said. "We’ve begun to learn that global warming may give a false sense of what is really going on.”

Sorensen said “change” is the keyword.

A few of the changes Sorensen mentioned in our interview were changes in temperature, lake water level and sea level. Warming is just a part of it.

Since climate change is such a broad topic with lots of contributing variables, researchers are breaking it down. Studies are becoming more regional and focused. In order to predict what the future of climate change holds, researchers must break this broad topic into smaller pieces. With these smaller pieces, models can be made.

Sorenson said that local models, compared to global, are more complicated since many more specific features and microclimates have to be taken into consideration. Several specific areas of research are temperature patterns, precipitation patterns, and ice cover. Sorenson is confident that with continuing research, the models will become more accurate.

Some pieces being studied that Sorenson mentioned are as follows:

Water Temperature

Lake Superior is one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world. On average the water temperature is warming twice as fast as the air temperature. This could be detrimental to both aquatic and terrestrial native species. Native species are generally adapted specifically to their ecosystems. For example, brook trout are adapted to a very specific range of water temperature and the slightest change could stress them. Climate change may even have something to do with the moose decline.

Research is finding invasive species are much more flexible when it comes to adapting to a fluctuating environment and often are able to out compete native species. This could lead to a decrease in biodiversity as these invasive species increase in population and monopolize an ecosystem. We did not discuss the consequences of a decrease in biodiversity, but during my studies in biology I’ve learned it generally is not good for the environment.

A Decrease in Ice Cover

Research is finding a trend in reduction of ice cover on Lake Superior. This can lead to more evaporation and lower water levels. Water quality could suffer from this and in the future shipping may even be negatively affected if the waters drop enough. Dropping lake levels could also lead to erosion, flooding, and drought troubles.

Changes in Seasons

There may be seasonal shifts as the climate begins to change. Our idea of spring, summer, fall and winter months. We could be seeing more Aprils with 55 inches of snow like we did this year. The local seasonal events that reel in tourists to Duluth may be forced to adjust in the future years.

Weather trends may become more violent. Floods and droughts may become more common and simultaneously occur in neighboring communities. Storms may intensify and become more frequent. Precipitation patterns will change. Growing seasons may also change.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things that may be consequential of climate change in Duluth. “The new normal will be the not-normal,” said Sorensen, “There will be much more variability.”

One of Sorensen’s duties is to communicate to the public the science being done on climate change at MN Sea Grant. A part of her job is to help the local businesses and the community learn how to mitigate and adapt to the changes researchers are identifying.

“Mitigation is like the brakes and adaptation is like the air bags,” said Sorensen.

She explained the goal of mitigation is to reduce the origin of the cause of climate change, such as reducing human produced greenhouse gases.

Adaptation, on the other hand, are the measures that are taken by decision makers and the community to help become less vulnerable to the changes that are already taking place, like implementing more green infrastructure and educating the public.

Sorenson also made it clear that nothing is for certain as the big picture of climate change is only beginning to emerge. It takes a lot of time for researchers to identify trends in the climate. They can look at past records of the climate and try to put together models that help produce future projections if our current greenhouse and pollution rates remain unchanged.

In the meantime, as research is conducted and data is accumulated, Sorensen says there are things that can be done to help reduce climate change and adapt to the already eminent changes.

“Building a better infrastructure can help adapt to the changes we’re experiencing,” said Sorensen. “Creating better storm run offs, more rain gardens, increasing storage in the headwaters of streams, as well as seasonal dependent businesses diversifying their services are all things that can help deal with local climate change.”

Sorensen stressed education may be the most important adaptation our community can make to climate change. She highlighted several sources people can turn to learn more that can be found here: NOAA and at Mark Seeley's website. Mark Seeley is a researcher at the University of Minnesota who looks at climate trends in our state.

Remember “change” is an ongoing process that will require everyone to act as research continues. Sorensen said people interested in climate change in Duluth can also contact MN Sea Grant for more information.

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