Adapting to a Changing Climate (Or, the Importance of Wearing a Hat in the Rain)

I’ll never forget the time that I got lost running on the trails at Jay Cooke State Park in the pouring rain. My friends and I were up north for a 1980’s style girls-weekend camping trip (more on that another time) and I was training for my second Grandma’s Marathon. Early in the morning, I headed out for a ten-mile run at the tail-end of a thunderstorm, sure that I would be back in time for breakfast. Four miles in, however, the rain returned with a vengeance.

At first the experience was euphoric. Trees were shielding me from the brunt of the rain and I even had a deer running alongside the trail for a stretch. Soon, however, the trail grew muddy and waterlogged. I encountered one unmarked intersection after another, and by then my paper map was nothing but a soggy mess of tattered pulp anyway. The rain dripped off of my face and clung to my eyelids, my nose started bleeding, and by the time I finally returned to the campground, I was covered in mud, cold, drenched, and nearly an hour late.

Jay Cooke State Park beckons hikers and runners with rolling hills and stunning scenery. During a rainstorm, however, the trails turn to slippery mudslides.

Contrast that experience with one I had a few days ago when I went for a short run in the rain near my house. I wore a light jacket and a hat to keep the rain off my skin and out of my eyes, stuck to paved roads, and only ran for three miles. I returned home slightly damp but feeling refreshed and none the worse for the wear. I take away two lessons from this experience: 1) There is a big difference between a light rain and a torrential downpour; and 2) Simple adaptations can keep rainy days from becoming disasters.

Two weeks ago, the South Washington and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed Districts hosted a two-day Climate Resiliency workshop in partnership with the Freshwater Society and Barr Engineering. The goal of the workshop was to help local communities begin planning for a changing Minnesota climate where winters are getting warmer and large rainstorms are becoming more common.

Kenny Blumenfeld, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, talked about trends observed in Minnesota over the past fifty years. Our winters have become substantially warmer, especially in northern Minnesota, and heavy rainstorms that can dump 6-10 inches of rain within a 24-hour period of time are becoming more frequent. These changes can have a dramatic impact on our economy and way of life, in addition to impacting wildlife and natural resources.

In recent years, heavy rainstorms have caused catastrophic damage in several Minnesota communities. A storm in southern Minnesota in 2007, washed away roads in Whitewater State Park and nearby towns.

During the Climate Resiliency workshop, participants worked in small groups to identify potential vulnerabilities in their communities – roads or buildings at risk of flooding, blufflands along the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers that are susceptible to erosion, or isolated neighborhoods that could be cut-off from the rest of the county during a flood. The groups also talked about adaptations that could help to better protect people and natural resources from harm. Some of the many ideas included retrofitting stormwater infrastructure to ensure that pipes and culverts are able to handle larger storms; avoiding building in floodplains and wetland basins; reducing impervious surfaces (roads, rooftops and parking lots) so that more rainwater is able to soak into the ground instead of running off; working with business and industry to ensure that toxic chemicals are stored safely and there are spill response plans in place; and engaging community groups and social service agencies to help vulnerable people during a flood or extended heat wave. Groups also talked about the importance of adapting our landscaping and winter maintenance practices in order to ensure the long-term availability of groundwater drinking resources and protect lakes and streams from runoff pollution.

A summer of hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes has highlighted the unpredictable nature of nature. We can’t keep bad weather and floods from happening, but we can adapt to a changing climate to protect ourselves in the future. In other words, wearing a hat won’t stop the rain, but it does keep the water out of your eyes.