Impacts of climate change felt in region, but uncertainty lingers on the causes
GRAND FORKS — North Dakota and Minnesota, along with other parts of the U.S., have reported more extreme weather in recent years, including more damaging hail storms, severe droughts, heavier rains, hotter temperatures and longer growing seasons.
By conservative estimates, the days that are projected to be above 90 degrees in North Dakota by the mid-21st century likely will increase by 10 to 25 days, according to the U.S. Fourth National Climate Change Assessment report released last month. In the worst-case scenario, that count could be between 20 and 35 days, the report mandated by Congress said.
“Overall, climate projections suggest that the number of heavy precipitation events (events with greater than 1 inch per day of rainfall) is projected to increase,” the report said of the Northern Great Plains.
In the Midwest region, including Minnesota, warm-season temperatures are expected to increase more than any other region in the U.S., according to the assessment. The frost-free season likely will increase 20 days by the middle of the 21st century and possibly a month by 2099, the assessment said.
The report also projected northern Minnesota’s annual five-day maximum temperatures could increase by 5 to 7 degrees by the middle of the century, moving “further above optimum conditions for many crops and closer to the reproductive failure temperature, especially for corn in the southern half of the Midwest,” according to the worst-case scenario.
Scientists have spent decades studying climate change and presented evidence the world’s weather patterns are changing, said David Delene, a University of North Dakota atmospheric sciences professor who has researched precipitation development at the university since 2001. Many people agree with that evidence, but how to use that information is the big question.
“I don’t think there is necessarily bias in the science part of it,” he said. “You could scientifically say climate change is happening. It’s still a political decision on what you should do.”
The global average temperature increased 1.8 degrees from 1901 to 2016, according to the assessment. Similar temperature changes were reported for the contiguous U.S.
Scientists and researchers detailed in the over 1,600-page document how the changing weather patterns would impact the U.S. and what extremes we could see.
“The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes,” the report said. “Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the warmest ever recorded by human observations.”
But as Delene said, scientists can only present the information they have and hope people use it. On top of that, there are so many variables in what caused climate change, making it a very active area of study, he said.
“People will look at worst case, and then they’ll say, ‘Let’s look at something more realistic,’” he said. “If you want to change the model outcome, the easiest way is to change the emissions scenario. If you want to pick an emissions scenario that has lots of … emissions, you can change the outcome quite a bit with that.”Uncertainty
The federal report found “more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.”
North Dakota and Minnesota are not excluded from the impacts, according to the report.
The report also noted flooding in the Devils Lake Basin, how more weather volatility makes it difficult to manage crops and livestock year to year in North Dakota and how longer growing seasons have allowed farmers to shift pastures to cropland.
But infrastructure for the energy industry also is affected by the impacts of climate change, the report said.
“Declining water availability in the summer would likely increase costs for oil production operations, which require freshwater resources,” the federal report said. “These cost increases will either lead to lower production or be passed on to consumers. Finally, higher maximum temperatures, longer and more severe heat waves, and higher overnight lows are expected to increase electricity demand for cooling in the summer, further stressing the power grid.”
On the average, annual precipitation in the Red River Basin has increased over the past 120 years, though spikes in wet seasons and drought varied greatly between 1896 and 2016, according data from the National Weather Service.
“You have months that go from 2 to 6 inches, so that’s a 300 percent change,” Delene said. “Any natural variations are so small that you can’t see that.”Changing attitudes
Years ago, average citizens in the U.S. may have questioned whether climate change was happening.
But those attitudes have slowly changed from “total denial” to “Yes, it is happening,” said Wayde Schafer, president of the Sierra Club’s Dacotah Chapter.
“People are starting to realize that there are changes. It is getting pretty obvious not only in North Dakota but around the country,” he said.
Over the last decade, more Americans have said they believe there is solid evidence of global warming, according to a University of Michigan Center poll released in July. The National Surveys on Energy and the Environment, which has asked U.S. citizens about their views annually since 2008, found 73 percent of respondents accepted climate change is happening, a record for the last decade and much higher than in 2010’s count of 52 percent.
The same study also found a record 60 percent of Americans think humans are at least partially responsible for rising temperature.
North Dakota contributes about 1 percent of the greenhouse gases in the U.S., Schafer said, attributing it to the energy industry. That isn’t a large number, but “we’re doing our part to bring climate change around,” he said.
“That means we can do something to help mitigate it, too,” Schafer said.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said most people want the U.S. to address greenhouse gas emissions, whether they believe climate change is man-made or caused by something else. North Dakota has made moves to invest in technology to reduce those emissions, sometimes getting help from the federal government. North Dakotans also have been good stewards of the land, he said, noting habitat and land preservation.
“I think North Dakota has always been a leader,” he said. “Even though we have been a leader in fossil fuel production and development, we have also been a leader in the innovative side of it. That’s why I have always said is what we don’t want to do is kill the innovators by killing the industries we work in.”
The gross U.S. greenhouse gas emission level has declined in the last decade, though it is about 2 percent higher than in 1990, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The country should be working to reduce greenhouse gases, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement.
“The administration’s recent report laid out the devastating effects of our changing climate,” she said. “For Minnesota, that means we could see destruction of crops and tough times for our farmers.”
Cramer has not read the federal report but said he doesn’t doubt a lot of the activity it mentions is unfolding.
“I don’t think we know enough about the lifespan of the Earth,” he said. “There’s an awful lot we don’t know.”
Schafer said he believes there is a very small window of opportunity to act. It’s not a problem that can be fixed quickly like a student cramming for an important exam, he said.
“I heard someone liken it to turning an ocean liner,” he said. “You have to start way back here because it turns so slowly. That’s kind of the problem with climate change.
“As it becomes more and more obvious, my hope is that people will get it,” Schafer added. “We need to get going really quickly here, because we are wasting a lot of time.”