UMN Center explores North Shore community readiness for climate-altered future

By Emily Green

With its superb state parks, picturesque shoreline, charming communities, and iconic wildlife, the North Shore of Lake Superior is one of Minnesota’s most beautiful and treasured landscapes. In the summer seasons alone, the area attracts more than one million visitors annually, who provide vital support for local communities and businesses.


With its superb state parks, picturesque shoreline, charming communities, and iconic wildlife, the North Shore of Lake Superior is one of Minnesota’s most beautiful and treasured landscapes. Photo credit: Karly Bitsura-Mezsaros

The area’s scenic attractions have typically been enhanced by its weather – breezy, sunny, and mild in summer and reliably snowy in winter.  But current models predict that global climate change patterns will result in local changes that could noticeably and adversely impact the visitor and resident North Shore experience. The summer seasons could bring increased average temperatures, more heat waves, increased wildfires, and more intense precipitation events. Meanwhile the winters will likely see a decrease in maximum snow depth and a later average date when snow levels reach the one-foot depth that is desirable for many outdoor sports.  In addition, the models predict that ice thickness in inland lakes will decrease, and it may take up to 10 days longer than previously for ice to completely cover those lakes.

In light of those predicted changes and their potential impacts on local communities, researchers with the UMN Center for Changing Landscapes (CCL), led by Water Resources Science faculty Mae Davenport, have carried out a multi-stage, interdisciplinary research project titled “North Shore Community Climate Readiness Project.” Funded by the Minnesota Sea Grant, the project aims to build the capacity of North Shore communities and resource management agencies to adapt to climate change.

In the project’s first stage, CCL researchers conducted interviews with community leaders to explore how they perceive climate change, its local impacts, and community readiness. Concurrently, collaborators in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering (UMN) and at Carleton College gathered historic climate, weather and ecological data to model their influence on historic state park visitation. Collaborators at North Carolina State University also conducted an intensive onsite survey of recreation and tourism visitors in the winter and summer seasons. Results of the first stage of the project are available at

 In the second stage, the focus shifted to exploring the beliefs and perceptions of local residents. CCL researchers mailed a questionnaire to 1000 residents along the North Shore to assess residents’ beliefs, concerns, and support for climate adaptation measures.  299 residents (35%) completed the survey.

Though the resident survey data are under analysis, preliminary findings highlight the importance of scale in prioritizing environmental problems. First, respondents expressed strong belief that climate change is happening; 80% of respondents reported this belief. However, climate change can be difficult to conceptualize on a local scale; 60% of respondents were concerned about climate change globally, but only 44% expressed concern about the phenomenon occurring on the North Shore. Respondents were most concerned about observable changes to local ecosystems such as decreases in fish and wildlife populations, declining health of forest ecosystems, and receding northern forests.  

According to research assistant Jenn Shepard, climate change framing in North Shore communities should emphasize the environmental changes that community residents are already noticing and concerned about. “Resource managers will not be as effective focusing on the global anthropogenic causes of local problems. Rather they should adopt the strategy of focusing on the broadly held concern for and investment in the local integrity and health of local environments for the observable benefits that people connect with,” Shepard states.  

Moreover, this study points out the importance of considering scale when it comes to effectively designing and/or taking actions to address environmental problems. This can be challenging because the physical or experiential scale of a problem that resonates with the community may not match up with the scale of governance boundaries. State, county, or city boundaries may not align well with the problem and natural resource agency jurisdictions may be too large. Above all, says Shepard, local strategies, defined and managed by local institutions to confront challenges that are seen as local, are more likely to be effective.  Take the example of predicted  forest community changes, rather than focusing on the anthropogenic climate change forces and regional impacts, resource managers should start with the emphasis on community-level concern for the local forest and what local strategies and policies could make it more resilient or help communities adapt.  

Of the residents who showed most concern about the local consequences of climate change, concern focused more on plants, fisheries and wildlife, and less so on human safety and livelihoods.  This suggests that adaptive management narratives with an ecological emphasis, perhaps prioritizing moose, cold-water fish species, or northern forest tree species, will likely garner more support.  

Based on the preliminary results of this study, Shepard stresses that for these communities, improving capacity for adapting to climate change will entail building greater local institutional capacity to drive management and policy development. In addition, it will be important to strengthen networks of formal and informal institutions – including citizen groups, environmental advocacy groups, and resource agencies --  as each has differing strengths in dealing with climate change.  Finally, climate change adaptation strategies should be grounded in a thorough understanding of community members’ concerns and values, focused on observable impacts, and structured at the most socially supported scale of impact.  

               More details and additional results from this study can be found on the CCL website: