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Could Minnesota’s climate, landscape mirror the middle of the country? Maybe

We’re not in Kansas … but it might look and feel like it before long.

That’s one of the warnings that six University of Minnesota professors presented to the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division in a packed Capitol hearing room Thursday. If humans continue to produce greenhouse gases at the current rate, they said, biomes will shift dramatically over the next 50 years, making Minnesota a lot more like 2019 Kansas in weather and landscape.

Continuing a two-part presentation that began Tuesday, the professors talked about how climate change has affected Minnesotans, how it may in the future, and what might be done to slow the effects. They focused upon the changes in four sectors — agriculture, cities, public health and biological resources — before shifting to how adaptation and resiliency could stave off the most dire predictions.

Agriculture — Jessica Gutknecht, a soil ecologist with the university’s Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, quickly addressed the idea that the warmer winters described Tuesday will mean longer growing seasons, saying that problems multiply more than benefits.

“The eggs of our pests will not die,” she said, citing the spread of corn rootworm and soybean aphids as examples, adding that warm winters also lower apple yields. As for livestock, hot summers are particularly bad for pigs, but they’re expected to have a significant impact on dairy and poultry, as well.

Cities — The southern Minnesota city of Faribault provided an example for Bonnie Keeler, a professor of science, technology and environmental policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

If steps aren’t taken to slow climate change, she said that by the year 2100 Faribault can expect an increase of 5 to 10 degrees in annual average temperature, with 54 days a year over 95 degrees, 43 fewer days below freezing and a 300 percent increase in air-conditioning demand. It will be similar to conditions currently felt 500 miles to its south.

In speaking of how cities are affected, Keeler also cited the frequency of “mega-rain” events damaging infrastructure, as well as higher temperatures and dew points driving increased energy demand, heat-related illnesses, and decreased air and water quality.

Public health — Allergies and asthma are up, and climate change may have a lot to do with that, according to Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, an assistant professor of medicine of the university’s Department of General Internal Medicine.

Over 7 percent of Minnesotans have asthma, and climate change makes it worse with increased pollen, mold, wildfires and decreased air quality. Heat-related illnesses are on the rise, especially among the elderly, and habitats for West Nile virus and Lyme disease are spreading, due to favorable conditions for their carriers. And then there’s mental health, as natural disasters have been shown to lead to depression and droughts sparking increased suicide rates among farmers.

Biological resources — It was Lee Frelich, director of the university’s Center for Forest Ecology, who spoke of Minnesota becoming “the new Kansas” in ensuing decades if steps aren’t taken to address climate change. By 2100, he said the Boundary Waters area could have vegetation and weather more like the southwestern Minnesota city of Granite Falls today.

“We’re one of only two places on the entire globe where, in a mid-continental setting, we have three biomes coming together: the boreal forest; the temperate, deciduous forest; and prairie,” Frelich said. “Because we’re on the edge of these biomes, we’re going to be very sensitive to a changing climate. … For a ‘business-as-usual’ carbon dioxide emission scenario, our pine forests are likely to disappear, along with one-third of all native species.”

[WATCH: Full video of the hearing]

But Frelich emphasized there is still time to change these outcomes, as did Jason Hill, an associate professor with the university’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. He spoke of both mitigation — reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and adaptation, as in how we can adjust ecological, social or economic systems to moderate damage and stimulate economic activity in a “green” direction.

Hill concluded by citing farmers as key players in the process because two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels and one-third from food production.

“Even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions today, and never emitted another molecule of CO2, methane or nitrous oxide, the climate has already warmed and will continue to warm,” said Jessica Hellman, director of the university’s Institute on the Environment. “Exactly how much it will warm will depend upon the amount of greenhouse gases we release. … It’s a sort of choose-your-own-adventure, if you will.”


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