In a year when a global pandemic and social unrest grab most of the headlines, another crisis is growing. However, the wildfires, hurricanes, and severe weather patterns created by the intricate web of atmospheric and oceanic conditions caused by climate change have drawn less attention.
Meehan Crist, writing in the New York Times, said that the coronavirus “is also an inflection point for that other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes, which remains the backdrop against which modernity now plays out. As the United Nations’ secretary general recently noted, the threat from coronavirus is temporary whereas the threat from heat waves, floods, and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years.”
Recent events such as the massive wind storms that tore through Iowa, Hurricane Laura which brought 150 mph winds to the Gulf Coast, flooding in Alabama, and the heatwave which raised the temperature in Death Valley to 130 degrees are events that catch the attention of climate scientists, as are the wildfires that rage throughout California, Oregon, and Washington.
“Hurricanes have done $335 billion in damage over the past three years, compared with $38.2 billion across the entire 1980s, adjusted for inflation,” according to an article in the Sept. 11 issue of “The Week.” “Climate disasters of all types inflicted $807 billion in damage during the 2010s, the hottest decade on record.”
One of the immediate results of the shutdowns that happened throughout the United States and the world in response to the coronavirus was a reduction in CO2 emissions. With many businesses closed, and people driving and flying less, reports of clearer air and water were bright spots in otherwise troubling news cycles.
“If we keep emitting carbon, climate change just keeps getting worse,” said Dr. David Keith, Harvard physics professor, speaking at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. “Climate risk is proportional to cumulative emissions, the total amount we have emitted until now. When we bring emissions to zero, we stop the problem from getting worse. We don’t make it better. The climate impact of CO2 is forever.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation released a 44-page report last year titled “Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation in Minnesota.”
The report, available on the agency's website, outlines several steps MnDOT will take to reduce carbon emissions.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to MnDOT’s vision of maximizing the health of people, the environment and our economy,” Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources teamed with the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to form the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. The organization studies climate change data, identifies concerns in the state, and helps plan for adaptations based on climate change.
“Some adaptation efforts will be reactive, handling situations as they arise. But WICCI strives to be pro-active, anticipating challenges and preparing for them ahead of time,” notes the WICCI website. “Effective planning and preparation could help save wildlife, property, money and even lives.”
The effects of climate change aren’t reserved for California wildfires or Gulf Coast hurricanes -- they are happening in local venues, as well.
At the Carpenter Nature Center in the St. Croix River valley and, the staff have noticed changes in the arrival dates of migratory birds, and the staff working in the orchard have seen the effects in crop conditions.
“We have had an increase in rodent damage in late winter,” said Sverre Sundgaard, orchard manager. “The deep snows provide cover from predators, and they also run low on food by then, so they start to chew on the apple tree trunks.”
The deep snow can make it difficult or impossible for orchard staff to prune and care for the trees near Hastings. In addition, heavy and consistent rain can leave the apple trees in standing water, according to Sundgaard.
“Weather is very hard to predict these days,” Sundgaard said, “whether planning for tree work or harvest or spraying. Apple growers could generally expect a dry period after the initial early spring and summer rains. Of recent, this has not been the case.”
Area farmers have also felt the effects of climate change. Third-generation farmer Kaleb Anderson, who farms near Goodhue, started using regenerative farming practices in 2006.
“There are very few aspects of our farming activities that haven’t been touched or affected by climate change,” Anderson said. “In general, my philosophy regarding climate change is to improve my soils as fast as I can do so in order to try and protect our farm from weather extremes that are characteristic of climate change.”
Anderson does this by limiting the disturbance to the soil, keeping live roots in the soil, increasing plant diversity, and integrating cattle on all acres.
“I believe the only way to slow and even reduce climate change effects is if agriculture dramatically changes,” Anderson said. “By following these principles of regenerative agriculture, farmers can capture millions of tons of carbon and trap it in the soil in the form of humus.”
Changing weather patterns have affected what farmers must do throughout the year, Anderson said. He has adjusted his calving season later into the spring to avoid calving in unpredictable spring weather. Dry summers from 2008-2012 caused him to change cattle management. He now moves cattle daily to prevent over-compacting the soil, and to help maintain moisture in the soil.
“Producing stored forages has become more difficult, as well, especially trying to produce dry hay,” he said. “Due to this, we are trying to extend the grazing season as long as possible. My goal is to one day graze year-round, reducing my dependence on the need for stored forages.”
Later and wetter springs are also causing Midwest farmers problems during the planting season. Anderson said some producers are buying additional equipment, so they can plant faster when the opportunity arises, and other farmers are transitioning to more perennial crops.
Later springs are also causing many farmers to apply fertilizer in the fall or early spring, leaving nutrients open to erosion which can pollute streams and rivers, Anderson said.
“Things will only get tougher moving forward for farmers,” Anderson explained. “That said, I am a believer in the fact that climate change can be slowed or even reversed by globally implementing soil regenerative practices and working more with Mother Nature, not against her.”