Goldilocks forecasts the weather

“It should be cooling down to 95° by the time you get here, but we’re still in an extreme drought,” my dad lamented as we discussed my upcoming visit to Pueblo. The weather has been so hot and dry in Colorado this summer that people aren’t even allowed to smoke outside in many places, due to the risk of wildfire. In Teller County, outside Colorado Springs, county commissioners voted to enact “Stage 3” fire restrictions, which means no outdoor grilling, smoking or shooting guns. Lawn mowers, ATVs, chainsaws and other small engines are also prohibited unless they are equipped with spark arresters.

Sign outside a museum in Woodland Park, CO where wild fires were burning July 20-21. Two days later, flash floods closed down the highway into town.

In contrast, many parts of Minnesota experiencing record wet weather during the spring and early summer. On July 17, a rain storm dumped six inches of rain in the northern St. Croix River watershed, sending a wall of water downstream toward Washington County. The Snake River, which runs through Mora and Pine City, raised 12-feet in two days. Later in the day, a second storm poured down in Stillwater, causing flash-flooding downtown. Previously this summer on June 18, the Radigan Dam on the Upper Tamarack River near Dairyland, WI collapsed during torrential rain and flash flooding, sending water downstream to the St. Croix as well.

Snake River hydrograph
A graph shows water level in the Snake River shooting up from 3-feet to 15-feet in one day after a large rain storm.

According to Kenny Blumenfeld, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, weather records from the past 100 years indicate several trends in how our climate is changing. Our winters have become substantially warmer, especially in northern Minnesota, and heavy rainstorms that dump 6-10 inches of rain within a 24-hour period of time are becoming more frequent. In other parts of the country – the western states, for example – weather trends are showing increases in heat waves and extreme drought. These changes can dramatically impact our economy and way of life, in addition to affecting wildlife and natural resources. Long-term trends show a steady change in normal over the past half-century, even when considering outliers like this year’s long, cold winter in Minnesota.

Charred hillsides show the aftermath of wildfires in Colorado. Climatologists warn that higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow melt increase the risk of drought and wildfires in the western United States.

Perhaps the biggest threat to human safety in our Minnesota and Wisconsin is the increasing number of “mega-rainfall” events that dump six or more inches of water at a time, causing landslides along rivers and streams, blowing out culverts, and flooding low-lying bridges and roads.  In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released Atlas 14, Volume 8, a tool that provides updated precipitation data and estimates to help communities plan appropriate infrastructure to guard against flooding. According to Atlas 40 data, the new “100-year” storm in the Twin Cities area has increased from 6-inches to 7.5-inches of rain since the U.S. Weather Bureau last published guidance in 1961. Unfortunately, most older communities have many existing roads, pipes and bridges designed for last century’s weather.

Flooding in southern Washington County.

At a state level, a work group within the Minnesota Interagency Climate Adaptation Team was formed in 2017 to identify risks and develop recommendations for increasing our resiliency to extreme rainfall. The workgroup includes representatives from the Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency, Met Council, Environmental Quality Board, Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Department of Agriculture, Department of Military Affairs, and Board of Water and Soil Resources. They are suggesting changes in state policy, as well as local planning and regulations, infrastructure projects, natural systems management, and public education to help keep Minnesotans safe.

Locally, the South Washington Watershed District just released a Climate Resiliency Plan this March, which outlines priorities related to groundwater, natural resources, and stormwater infrastructure. Prior to developing the plan, the watershed district hosted a two-day workshop last fall in partnership with Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, Barr Engineering, and Freshwater Society. During the workshop, more than 60 staff and stakeholders from communities in the area shared their concerns and expertise on issues such as locations prone to flooding, programs to assist vulnerable populations during emergencies, and high value natural resources to protect.

If Goldilocks were forecasting the weather, she’d be looking for a place that’s not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, and not too wet.  Colorado clearly won’t fit the bill, and Minnesota might not work for her either. For the rest of us stuck living in the real world, we’ll have to learn to adapt to a new kind of normal.