As climate change threatens Midwest cultural identity, cities explore how to adapt

Higher temperatures, risks of dangerous heat waves and erratic precipitation patterns could add to existing stress on Midwest communities that already are dealing with economic downturns, population loss and deteriorating infrastructure.

This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called Unfamiliar Ground: Bracing for Climate Impacts in the Midwest. The effort, led by the nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change.

Think of a Minnesota with almost no ice fishing. A Missouri that is as hot and dry as Texas. River and lake communities where catastrophic flooding happens almost every year, rather than every few generations.

This, scientists warn, is the future of the Midwest if emissions continue at a high rate, and it threatens the very core of the region’s identity.

With extreme heat waves and flooding increasingly making that future feel more real, city leaders have started looking for ways to adapt.

This may be the moment that the resilience and problem-solving nature of many Midwesterners can shine, says Ashlynn Stillwell, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois whose research focuses on the intersection of water and energy policy.

“We Midwesterners are more doers than talkers, and so protesting and talking about something is honestly annoying compared to doing something about it,” she said.

In a joint project organized by InsideClimate News, reporters across the Midwest are exploring what communities are doing to respond to climate change, with stories from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri, and this one from Minnesota.

“It is our job as elected leaders to be honest with people,” said Kim Norton, mayor of Rochester, Minnesota. “The way we live and the way we manage resources is going to need to change.”

From her office window, Norton has a clear view of how close the Zumbro River is to overflowing downtown flood walls. The city has an enviable level of flood protection, installed after the devastating flood of 1978, but the walls were just barely enough to handle high waters last year.

Torrential rains are happening more often in the city, part of a pattern seen across the Midwest. The government’s National Climate Assessment issued last year described how heavy rain events are increasingly causing disruption to transportation and damage to farms, property and infrastructure across the region, and it warned that that will continue to worsen in a warming world.

Norton has put climate change at the forefront of her agenda since taking office in January. The city is taking steps to adapt, such as updating sewers to deal with increasing stormwater. It also is working to reduce emissions with strategies such as a converting to all-electric buses and encouraging the city-owned utility to move to 100 percent renewable power.

This approach would not be affordable or politically viable in many places. But Rochester, with a population of about 115,000, has a thriving healthcare industry led by the Mayo Clinic and a voter base that is predisposed to trust science.

“I think we have to listen to the scientists,” said Darrell Strain, who was a member of the Rochester City Council from 1969 to 1991.

Strain, 82, was one of the leaders in developing flood control measures, which he says were the result of years of conversations within the community. He describes this as a process of learning and listening that worked because just about everyone felt like they were being heard. “It’s a teamwork thing,” he said.

Norton has taken a similar tack when talking about the effects of climate change.

“I think we’re ahead of the game, but change is hard,” she said. “I hope to be able to help people make this transition through listening, understanding that change can be difficult, but it also can be exciting.”

Evidence of the damage and risk Is piling up

One of the big obstacles that stops communities from taking action is that many people aren’t familiar with climate science.

“The real challenge is that if you don’t know what’s coming, then you don’t know how to plan,” said Jonathan Gilligan, a climate scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

We know a lot more about what’s coming than we did just a few years ago. 

The latest National Climate Assessment spells out how higher temperatures, risks of droughts and dangerous heat waves, and erratic precipitation patterns could add to existing stress on Midwest communities that already are dealing with economic downturns, population loss and deteriorating infrastructure. The warnings are in line with what international reports have documented about the climate changes already underway around the world and the risks ahead.

The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report in July showing that heat indexes—a calculation based on heat and relative humidity—are on track to rise to dangerous levels more often across much of the Midwest, even if the world makes significant progress in reducing carbon emissions.

That report has broad implications, as vulnerable people will need places to keep cool, outdoor workers will face heightened safety concerns, and crops and infrastructure will need to be able to withstand the heat.

In St. Louis, the average number of 100-degree Fahrenheit heat index days per year is now 11. With no action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, the number would rise to 82 days by the end of this century, the report shows. With significant action to reduce emissions, it would rise to 46 days. 

This helps to show local leaders that there is a need to plan for warming, and it gives them data to help explain the stakes to constituents.

Will we still recognize these places?

Forecasts of a warming world can feel relentless, as can the steady stream of reports about the vanishing of regionally cherished plants or animals. For example, the National Audubon Society said last month that the loon, Minnesota’s state bird, is among 55 bird species likely to disappear from the state by 2080 if the world does not reduce carbon emissions.

And then there is a fading of activities that require deep cold, such as ice fishing, which is already seeing the effects of warming.

“Losing the ability to ice fish, or if it’s unsafe, is really going to affect the cultural identity and sense of place for people living in these northern regions,” said Lesley Knoll, a biologist at the University of Minnesota Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.

She was the lead author of a paper published in August that traces the decline of cultural activities on frozen lakes, including the increasing cancellation of ice-fishing tournaments because of warming and unsafe ice.

Her research hints at a deeper question: Will climate change make places increasingly unfamiliar to the people who live there?

Tough conversations, but ‘we’ll get through this’

There are opportunities to adapt. Local leaders should be helping residents prepare for the social and economic ramifications of climate change, said Don Albrecht, director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University. 

This means thinking about what rising heat will mean for local buildings and residents, and what kinds of industries are best equipped to persevere in a warming world.

“People are just going to have to get together and come together and talk,” he said.

These are difficult conversations. Some of the needed changes are expensive, such as flood protection. And some, such as the continuing loss of lake ice, are beyond the capacity of a single community to fix.

Albrecht has spent his career helping rural areas deal with economic changes. One recurring theme is that big problems are often evident long before they become crises.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we didn't have to wait until our downtown flooded three years in a row?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just look at what scientists are telling us and have confidence in the scientific process and say, ‘These are the things that are going to happen in this area. What can we do right now?’”

This gets back to Stillwell’s sentiments that this is the time when the problem-solving nature of people in the Midwest can be put to good use.

“We’ve kind of seen it all,” she said, “and we are strong people so we’ll get through this.”

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Mon, 11/11/2019 - 3:56pm

If man hadn't developed over the natural flood control systems, there wouldn't be nearly the problem. We have had worse rains than this nearly a century ago, but there was less damage to housing, infrastructure, etc., because it wasn't there.

middle of the mit
Wed, 11/13/2019 - 3:52am

Uhh, yeah, did you hear about this?

[[The river is cold–Michigan’s brook trout, a sensitive species, prefer water between about 43 degrees and 53 degrees F and can get stressed in water in the high 60s. The Au Sable, Michigan’s most fabled trout stream, has strong groundwater recharge, clear water and all kinds of springs and seeps that provide the cold-water brook trout need to survive.

While the Au Sable might be buffered against rising air temperatures, that’s not true across the state. And, in some streams, climate change could spell big trouble for the little fish.

“Look, there are a lot of streams that are very cold and we’re going to have brook trout for a long time,” said Bryan Burroughs, the executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited. “But we’re looking at losing places without strong populations in the future. And we’re probably not going to gain much ground at all.”

Not all Michigan rivers–there are more than 300 named rivers and many more streams and creeks crisscrossing the state–have brook trout. Those holding brook trout are, for the most part, concentrated in water in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, and throughout the Upper Peninsula.

And some are set to change, perhaps too much for the beloved brookies.

A recent study led by Michigan State University found water temperatures in those rivers that are mostly fed by groundwater are set to increase by 0.2 to 6.8 degrees F by the year 2056. Water temperatures in rivers fed by surface runoff are set to warm by 0.4 degrees F to 12 degrees F over that time.

“Any places marginally cold now will fall off,” Burroughs said.

The trend is disturbing–from 1976 to 2006, the average temperature of Michigan streams that hold brook trout increased 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Air temperature increased about 4 degrees F over that time.

Carlson said brook trout are most likely to experience stress in summer months–June, July, August–due to the warm air. Warmer water is lower in oxygen and can stress fish out. If it gets too high, it can kill them and impact populations. And it can give an upper hand to parasites like gill lice.

Michigan is not alone. When researchers examined eastern U.S. brook trout streams from Georgia to Maine they reported that only 5 percent of the watersheds had populations of brook trout occupying more than 90 percent of historical habitat.

“Wild stream populations of brook trout have vanished or are greatly reduced in nearly half of the watersheds,” the authors wrote in the 2011 report.]]

These trout are the harbingers of what is to come. And the only reason I endure the winter here. I love my State and the Mitt and the UP. But if WE are unwilling to at least try to be good stewards, what point is there in staying here? It is cold and grey. And now we have conservatives that are willing to make the rest of the State desolate.

Why don't you conservatives leave and go where your tax rates are in effect? Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Utah, North or South Dakota?

Because you can not make the money that you do now where you live. Near a liberal TAXHOLE! None of those places have infrastructure, or a tax base. But they are all NOT A TAXHOLE!

So come on! MOVE if you don't like it! Don't make me leave my Beloved Mitten because you want to deny that there are alternatives to OIL and Natural gas. Reality is going to hit you! In the form of a drunk driver, a texter or just a plain 'ole driver who thinks they own the road.

Wake up! Hopefully you didn't screw yourself by allowing "auto insurance reform"!

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 9:29pm

Soooo ….MOM, your point is there are no trout in these low tax hell holes? Keep that thought! And you are right If not for family considerations i'd pack it up and head to Wyoming... suffering the whole time! But instead of fretting over our too low taxes, you're always free to toss in a little extra if that makes you feel better.

middle of the mit
Fri, 11/15/2019 - 9:54pm

Soo Matt, did you read the article or my post? Do you have hard time comprehending English?

Brook trout don't live in Southern MI unless they are planted there by the DNR.

Why not leave now for Wyoming? Why doesn't FOX NEWS leave the liberal taxhole of Manhatten New York City, New York State?

If America is laboratory of democracy, why are the red States losing the economic battle? And if rural areas are all you think they are, why are the court sections of my local newspaper not much different than the local court section of your paper ........just not as much?

Maybe because there aren't as many people? Doesn't matter. Just the same problems. It is what I have trying to tell you and you refuse to accept. You think that you can get away, but when you do, you realize there are just as many people who have been left behind if not more than where you left.

Go ahead, leave.

If I leave it will be because I can no longer physically deal with the snow and my rivers are polluted. What is it you would be leaving for?

Ohh! Relaxation! And business will leave because of taxation. What patriots!

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 4:42pm

Kevin, don't let the facts ruin a good story. Surely you understand that the record cold and snow was at the wrong time of year or are you that dim? I hope you have children and grandchildren who will endure what the rest of our children and grandchildren will have to endure because of your greed and ignorance. Your behavior is beyond outrageous. BTW God commands us to be good stewards of His creation. Stop worshiping the mammon demon.

Almighty Dollar
Tue, 11/12/2019 - 10:16am

Isn't it just a Chinese hoax?

According to yesterday's NYT, only 17% of Americans correctly understand that almost all climate scientists think global warming is happening.

The cultural identity is a bit pathetic, Professor Stillwell.

Not only are they not talkers, but they also are not doers, and mainly are climate change and science deniers. And, they have many enablers, mainly Republican politicians and Fox television.