Tutorial focuses lawmakers on climate change and global trends

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The climate in Minnesota is behaving outside the historical realm that has been observed for the last 150 years, and frequent shifts in weather extremes are occurring at rates never observed before in the state’s history.

That was one of the messages delivered by a panel of scientists from the University of Minnesota to a joint meeting of three House committees that control the purse strings for an array of government agencies and programs.

The presentations on the current science in topics such as climate change, groundwater and the state’s forests were requested by members of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee; the House Legacy Committee; and the House Capital Investment Committee in order to better inform decision-making on expenditures going forward.

Dr. Mark Seeley, an extension climatologist, outlined a number of recent global trends by way of introduction — including doubling of the population and tripling of food consumption and water use — saying there has been more change in the last 50 years than all previous generations combined.

He also spoke about climate change, warning lawmakers that three attributes of climate are changing: temperature, water vapor and moisture. Longer growing seasons, changes in fisheries management and increased opportunities for invasive species are a few of the consequences of those changes.

“We need to pay attention to these,” Seeley said. “Our predecessors in Minnesota have done so, and we need to do likewise.”

Not all committee members seemed to be convinced, however. Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck) questioned Seeley about the science underlying some of the conclusions being drawn.

“Your numbers indicate something may be happening, but I just have to ask you, you say your records go back about 150 years, and some would say that’s kind of a snippet of time compared to how long the earth has been around and ice ages, things like that,” Anderson said. “

Seeley said great care has been taken in measuring Minnesota’s climate over the last 150 years, and in quality control of the records. The behaviors seen in those records over the last two decades is outside the realm of what’s been measured historically, as is the pace of change, he said.

Also speaking before the committees were experts on groundwater, forestry and agronomy. Highlights of their presentations included:

  • The changing climate provides opportunities for Minnesotans. Nick Jordan, a professor in the university’s Agronomy & Plant Genetics Department, said big gains in efficiency and productivity are possible with relatively small use of perennial crops that could prevent runoff and nutrient loss. Use of winter annuals could increase profit for Minnesota farmers by $300 per acre.
  • Minnesota’s forests are changing, but it’s impossible at this point to determine how that change will occur. Northern Pine, Spruce and Aspen trees are projected to decline, while trees such as Central Oak and Maple are expected to expand farther north.
  • There is an urgent need for more research to better understand the groundwater in Minnesota.
  • Studies have uncovered strong evidence that land acquisition by the Department of Natural Resources has provided a good return on investment for the public.

Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) asked the panelists whether the committees might find others among their peers at the university who would come before lawmakers and “tell us you were wrong.”

Seeley conceded there were differences of opinion, but said any disagreements would likely be over “uncertain knowledge” rather than “knowledge of high certainty.”