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  • Jenny Hill

Minnesota Climate Expert Is Hopeful Despite Challenges

Dr. Mark Seeley, climatologist and meteorologist, has tracked, interpreted, and taught about Minnesota weather for more than 40 years. He focuses on the local. “I don't talk about what's happening around the world. We do need to worry about that, but I think what resonates with most Minnesota citizens is what's happening right here,” Seeley said. “We care for each other so how do we rally around this? How do we protect our natural resources? How do we get our infrastructure to operate effectively?”



As someone who is extremely well-versed in Minnesota history, not to mention the science of climate and atmosphere, Seeley provides evidence that illustrates the changes in climate. For Minnesota specifically he points out:


  1. Winter recreation enthusiasts living in the southern half of Minnesota can no longer rely on having continuous snow cover where they live. 

  2. The frequency of heat/thaw cycles (which affects roads and highways) is now five times what it used to be as winters have become more mild. “We fluctuate around the freezing mark much more often. In the old days we used to go below freezing and stay below freezing for weeks, which made road maintenance much less costly and more predictable.”

  3. Because our fall season has become so extended with mild temperatures, the allergy and mold season also extends much further into the fall. This is a public health issue. 


“These things are kind of undercover but affect our lives,” Seeley said.


Drought and Floods Are Local

Seeley notes changes across the state are not consistent. How that plays out when it comes to drought is that within an ever-narrowing geographic range, both drought and floods might be experienced within the same time frame.


He describes weather details in 2012 and 2016 when Minnesota had national disaster declarations. The federal government stepped in to provide citizens with low cost loans simultaneously for flood disasters and drought disasters. “That had never occurred in the state until the year 2012,” Seeley said. “Simultaneously on the Minnesota landscape we had areas of federally declared flood disasters and federally declared drought disasters.”


That's what something called amplified variability does. Seeley illustrated this idea with recent extremes: “2019 was the wettest year in State history, with over 35 inches of precipitation. And some parts of Minnesota had well over 50–approaching 60–inches of precipitation. We had mild, moderate,or severe drought prevail in the four consecutive years since. What this speaks to is another underlying change in our climate that is not appreciated and that is amplified variability.”


Another way Seeley recommended thinking of this: the range of events is amplified. “When we go warm, we go warmer. When we go wet, we go wetter. When we go dry, we go drier and it swings rapidly. We've had 71 to 74° temperatures spreads in this state within a 12 to 24 hour period. That's just huge.”


Chaos and Unpredictability

Five tree trunks or more plus branches blocking a trail
Superior National Forest Photo of BWCA trail following July 4, 1999 storm where tens of millions of trees were lost. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service,

As someone who has studied and tracked weather events his whole life, Seeley is concerned that more and more in our state we are seeing things occur that have never been measured before. He cited the 1995 Itasca State Park derecho (straight line winds) events as well as the 1999 BWCA storms. “These events were totally unprecedented in historic climate behavior. So we say the climate is changing. And people will say in 4.5 billion years the climate has ALWAYS been changing.”


But, as Seeley describes it, the marker of our lifetime is that the climate is changing decade by decade at a pace that is equivalent to the way it used to change over thousands of years. “And the pace is running away from us. Our infrastructure and our natural resource management can't adjust to how fast the climate is changing unless we put forth a much greater effort.”


These unpredictable events, coupled with amplified variability, may lead to civic divides. People in areas of severe drought may expect the state legislature to provide drought relief while in other parts of the state and for other legislators that might not be a priority.


“Elected officials pay attention to what's going on in their backyard,” Seeley said. “So their mindset is weighted on that: what their constituents are talking about. Those constituents might be talking about the potential for another flood but 200 miles away, you're getting constituents saying are we going to have another drought.”


Staying Positive

During his 40-year career, Seeley helped produce Twin Cities Public Television documentaries on weather and climate change and he is the author of the Minnesota Weather Almanac (2015).  Through his professional activities and time he continues to spend on public education, he sees a lot of reason for optimism. “A lot of younger generation cognitive capacity is directed at this problem of climate change.” He cites Dr. Heidi Roop, the director of the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership as an example. Roop is the faculty member who replaced Dr. Mark Seeley at the University. Her book, The Climate Action Handbook, was published in 2023.



“The approach in Minnesota as I see it is from the ground up. Community by community we're getting focused on these issues and resolving to do something about it. Government leaders and politicians who don't do anything about it are not going to be tolerated.”


“As a scientist, I try to get people to understand we are designed to learn. We have more cognitive ability than any other species on this planet. And we are supposed to use that knowledge. We are not supposed to deny that knowledge.“


Taking Action

Seeley is convinced we have a knowledge base that could be directed to both adaptation and mitigation with significant results. Adaptation focuses on what's happening right now and the pace that it's happening while mitigation focuses on slowing down the pace of change. 


“If we all got on the same page and put enough intellectual capacity and enough financial backing into those two areas then we could meaningfully do something about it. I'm very optimistic we can get there, but I'm very frustrated with where we are now.”


“When I talk to people who just don't want to take this message, I say you know you aren't doing your community any service here. You are not doing your family or future members of your family any meaningful service here.” 


Seeley recommends the Climate Action Handbook, mentioned above. Seeley's own book, The Minnesota Weather Almanac, from 2015, combines climate change and weather history in Minnesota, organized by season.


And in keeping with the Back to Basics mindset, Seeley offered these thoughts on resilient living: “I encourage people to not only think about their carbon footprint but also their consumption footprint.” He lists as consumption examples: How much water you use, how much waste you generate. “That is in addition to what they put in the atmosphere, which is more about the carbon footprint. I like to talk about role modeling.”


By that, he means we mustn't lose sight of the fact that we all as individuals have an impact on the families and communities we interact with. “And even though we might not use the words ‘environmental stewardship,’ the way people perceive and see us act is really important.  We must remind ourselves that we're all role models and how we treat each other and how we treat the environment.”





Dr. Mark Seeley will present the Keynote "Climate Change in Our Own Backyards” on Saturday, February 17th at 8:45 a.m. at Pine River BackusSchool. His talk is free and open to the public. To see the full schedule for Back to Basics including registration information for workshops go to https://www.happydancingturtle.org/back-to-basics



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