Minnesota’s increasing weather extremes will demand smarter water resources management, says state climatologist, weather historian Mark Seeley

By Nina Shepherd

Mark SeeleyMinnesota’s reputation for weather extremes will intensify with climate change, bringing more extreme variation in the drought and flood cycle. And it’s a trend that will have an enormous impact on the state’s water resources management, says climatologist Mark Seeley.

A professor in the University of Minnesota’s department of Soil, Water, and Climate and Minnesota Extension and a graduate advisor in the Water Resource Sciences Graduate Program, Seeley is Minnesota’s most recognized expert on weather trends. His ability to explain the complexities of climate change’s impact on weather with down-home charm has made him a popular media commentator and speaker at convocations, workshops and special events throughout the region.

So when Seeley speaks on the coming effects of climate change, he isn’t shrill, but his warning is dire.

Floods and droughts are nothing new to Minnesota. In fact, Seeley says, “drought is a marker of our state.” But, he points out, the historical record and recent models show that Minnesota’s drought and flood cycles are getting wilder and more severe.

Unlike the multi-year drought that’s gripped the desert southwest, Minnesota’s recent droughts have been generally been alleviated by wet springs. As an example, last fall’s drought—during which 84 percent of Minnesota was in drought—was quickly quelled by this year’s late winter snows and record-breaking spring rainfalls.

“We snapped back in a hurry, and so dramatically, that this past spring has been the wettest in Minnesota history,” says Seeley. “When our environment is too wet or too dry, we wait for the other pattern to emerge and when it does it happens emphatically.”

Those wild swings are due to what Seeley calls ‘massive alleviation’ — a weather phenomenon that’s akin to applying a tourniquet to a paper cut.

“More of our precipitation is coming in the form of intense thunderstorms,” says Seeley. “Additionally, he says, there’s high spatial probability in these storms, meaning they can miss entire counties, creating huge disparities in rainfalls within a single region.”

As an example, he points to the summer of 2007 during which 24 Minnesota counties received drought designation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same summer, seven Minnesota counties were declared flood disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“At first, we thought that vast discrepancy was a singularity, a sample of one,” says Seeley. But the same thing happened in 2012, when 55 Minnesota counties received federal drought designation at the same time 11 countries declared flood emergencies. “Two times in ten years is no longer a singularity,” he says.

In fact, Seeley believes it’s the start of a long-term trend of increasingly intense and spatially fragmented thunderstorms—the kind of storms that can wipe out entire landscapes—like what happened along the St. Louis River in Jay Cooke State Park last June. With the kind of flooding that can wash away roads and bridges, natural ecosystems, and a season’s worth of crops.

The trend is particularly pronounced in the western Great Lakes region, and Seeley says, nowhere else are the variations as extreme as they are in Minnesota.

“We’ve got to figure out how to find ways to be more flexible and resilient in our water resource management,” he says. “The staggering costs of damage alone will force us to change our behavior and approach to water management. “

Highway 210 FloodingJune 2012's torrential rains devastated landscapes and wiped out the
Highway 210 approach to the Thomson Bridge in Jay Cooke State Park,
10 miles southwest of Duluth.
Photo credit: Minnesota Department of Transportation.