Northern Minnesota feels the heat

Three experts discussed global warming at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.

by Mike Enright

Sixty-six-year-old Dennis Schmidt, along with his brother and their wives, opened Smitty’s on Snowbank nearly a decade and a half ago.

The resort, located on the southwest shore of Snowbank Lake, is on the very edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near the Iron Range town of Ely.

Although known for its cold climate, recent winters in northeastern Minnesota have been milder, Schmidt said Monday afternoon.

“I ordered palm trees,” he said with a chuckle. “I want to start raising coconuts and oranges. To heck with this.”

A few hours later and roughly 250 miles south, at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, three experts discussed global warming. They explored its long-term consequences – both for the world in general and for the Minnesota wilderness – and looked at possible solutions.

Before a crowd of more than 100 people, WCCO-TV chief meteorologist Paul Douglas opened the discussion, saying the majority of the scientific community sees global warming as a legitimate problem and blames humans for most of the damage.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” he said. “This does not have anything to do with politics. It has everything to do with science.”

Although the greenhouse effect – which is what causes global warming – is a naturally occurring process, Douglas said, humans have created a bigger problem by taking carbon that took billions of years to form and releasing it over just a few centuries.

“Most of the warming is probably the result of increased greenhouse gases,” he said. “What is unique and important is that today the warming is global and it cannot be explained away by natural causes.”

Douglas then touched on some of the possible negative consequences of climate change.

“If you increase the temperature Ö you increase the potential for severe storms,” he said.

In Minnesota, for instance, warmer weather could result in more flooding, worsened hail storms and a greater spread of disease via mosquitoes.

Northern Minnesota, known for its sub-zero winter nights, is not immune to the effects of global warming, said Lee Frelich, director of the University’s Center for Hardwood Ecology.

Climate change is especially important in Minnesota because the state is on the edge of the prairie-forest border, which is home to specific species of trees and vegetation, said Frelich, who has performed extensive research in the boundary waters area. Climate change, he said, could completely change the kinds of forests growing in Minnesota.

Scientists have analyzed past regional climate shifts, and they found that forest borders moved along with the changes, Frelich said.

“And what has happened, can happen (again),” he said. “Tree species respond to a warming climate by migrating. They don’t evolve and adapt to a warmer climate; other tree species take them over.”

Frelich said that, in addition to possibly forcing migration, global warming could threaten boundary waters forests by introducing invasive pest species, such as the Asian long-horned beetle or emerald ash borer, which kill maple and ash trees, respectively. Currently, cold temperatures keep the species out of boundary waters forests.

In order to save the forests, he said, people need to do everything possible to reduce global warming and the movement of invasive species. Seeds of current trees may even need to be preserved, so that species could be reintroduced later, Frelich said.

J. Drake Hamilton, the science policy director of Fresh Energy – a nonprofit environmental organization – wrapped up the event by addressing solutions to global warming in general.

She summed up the three main sources of global warming pollution as coal-burning power plants, oil-consuming vehicles and buildings. The key to solving the global warming dilemma is to address these areas, Hamilton said.

“We need transformation,” she said. “We are all responsible for this and we all need to work together to make it happen.”

Minnesota, Hamliton said, can do its part by doubling its investment in energy efficiency and establishing renewable energy requirements.

Back on Snowbank Lake, Schmidt said he’s aware of the threat global warming poses, even in the remote wilderness. But, he said, he’s not too concerned for the immediate future.

“I know it might be difficult in the years coming,” he said. “And it’s good somebody’s planning to get ahead of it.”