ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - It's getting harder to brag about being a hardy Minnesotan. That was the underlying message from a pair of climatologists who spoke at Alexandria Technical and Community College's kickoff to Senior College last week.
"We don't get as cold as we used to," said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist for the DNR. "We are not breaking record lows."
Once known as "the American Siberia," Minnesota's temperatures are changing faster than any state other than Alaska, Blumenfeld and fellow climatologist Mark Seeley, a retired professor from the University of Minnesota, told a crowded auditorium. All seats were filled, and some were standing or sitting on steps in the room's rear.
Charts showing rapidly-changing conditions in Minnesota drew gasps from the audience.
Minnesota has long been known for its extreme variations in weather. In the 1850s, while the state founders were meeting in St. Paul to draft the state constitution, temperatures dipped to the minus-30s, Seeley said. Then, just a couple decades later, the winter was so mild that farmers were able to plant wheat in February.
A warming trend
Longer-term trends show what many Minnesotans have sensed, that our winters just aren't as brutal as they used to be.
In fact, they can be downright disappointing for those hoping to cross-country ski or snowmobile, and crushing to those who make a living off winter sports, such as resorts and snowmobile dealers.
Even the DNR is evaluating which winter events to promote, Blumenfeld said.
"We are going to have to think more creatively," he said. "Mountain biking in the winter is becoming more popular."
Observers began recording Minnesota weather in the late 1800s, Seeley said. The first weather observation in Alexandria was recorded in 1886. Now, scientists can draw on that data to demonstrate that Minnesota is getting warmer faster.
Since 1970, the coldest nights of the year in central and western Minnesota have warmed by between 1.5 and 2 degrees per decade. A typical "very cold night," therefore, is now noticeably warmer than it would have been just four or five decades ago, Blumenfeld said.
In Milan, about 70 miles southwest of Alexandria, the coldest night of the year during the 20th century averaged minus 27.6 degrees, and was at least minus 30 degrees once every 2-3 years on average. This century, the coldest night of the year is minus 22.3 degrees-more than 5 degrees warmer than last century-and is minus 30 degrees or colder just every 6-7 years on average.
"That pace of change is remarkable," Seeley said. "That's what's scary."
Minnesota's climate is changing faster than any other of the lower 48 states because it is located in the center of the country, away from coastal influences and subject to Canadian air masses which are also warming, Blumenfeld said after the meeting.
The changes leave many Minnesotans feeling unsettled, and a new word has been coined, he said: solastalgia, which describes a feeling of distress caused by climate change.
The scientists pointed out that winters will still be dark and cold, just not as cold as before.
Rains more intense
So far, Minnesota summers are not getting warmer, though they are becoming wetter, and rains are getting more intense, the scientists said. Each year sees more storms that dump four and even five inches of rain.
"A four-inch rain is not a picnic canceller," Blumenfeld said. "Now you're losing landscape. The manhole covers are popping off in the streets."
The warmer winters are setting up a situation where summers will get hotter, they said.
Because the lowest lows are vanishing, springs will become warmer more quickly.
"Add in sunshine and southerly winds, and it's a hot summer," Blumenfeld said.
Asked by an audience member what is causing climate change, Blumenfeld responded, "My job is not to judge anyone for how they vote or the car they drive or how many lightbulbs they change."
Natural events such as volcanic eruptions and solar activity do play a minor role in climate change, he said, adding, "The main culprit is greenhouse gas."
After the talk, retired dairy farmer Elling Lyslo got ready to return to his home in Glenwood. He recalled life-threatening freezes in the 1970s and 1980s during farm chores. While he's not farming anymore, he guessed that farm chores are much more pleasant nowadays.