U expertise in a changing climate

In recent years, scientists have been pointing to some distinct, if not alarming, trends in our nation’s and world’s climate. And while some still debate the legitimacy of “global warming,” there can be little doubt that something is in the air.

Many of those changes have been detailed in a new report from the U.S. Global Change Research Project—a document intended to inform federal climate and environmental policy in the coming years. 

“Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” the report states. “The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.” 

Among the report's findings:

  • The U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895, and more than 80 percent of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the hottest on record.
  • Human-induced climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events. Much of the country has seen an increase in prolonged stretches of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, and in some regions more severe droughts.
  • In the Midwest, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels are increasing yields of some crops, although these benefits have been offset in some instances by extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, and floods.
  • And in the Great Plains, rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy and impacts on agricultural practices.

U researchers attack the problem

On the heels of that report’s release, five researchers from the University of Minnesota testified before a joint committee hearing in the Minnesota House of Representatives about the climate change before us, and how current science can help inform investment decisions in the state.

Their expertise ranged from climatology and forestry to water resources and agricultural products—evidence of the broad-based, interdisciplinary work happening at the U.

Jonathan Foley, director of the U’s Institute on the Environment, coordinated the testimony, and spoke two weeks after the hearing about the challenges ahead and the many things the University brings to the table.

As for the reality of climate change, it’s moved from a scientists-are-theorizing story to “hey, everybody’s noticing” story, says Foley. “The big, broad pattern is becoming clearer—the climate that we’ve been used to for thousands and thousands of years is beginning to change.”

But the University of Minnesota, he says, is a world leader in looking at the issue of climate change from three different perspectives:

1) Understanding—realizing what is happening to our climate across the world and here at home;

2) Mitigation—how we prevent the warming from getting significantly worse in the future; and

3) Adaptation, or building resilience into systems so they are less susceptible to disruption by changing climate.

“The idea is that we've got to look at things like our agriculture, water, cities, and forests, and say ‘How are we going to manage these in a shifting climate?" he says. “How do we plant our crops? How do we manage our water resources and our forests and our landscapes and our cities in light of climate change, at least for the next couple of decades?”

The U already has world-leading experts in renewable energy—biofuels, solar, and wind—exploring new ways of producing energy so that we don’t release as much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Foley points out that the U is also at the leading edge of developing sustainable agricultural practices, including using grasses for biofuels and working toward more carbon sequestration.

“These are all areas where Minnesota is one of the best places on earth for research,” he says.

In addition, there are experts at the U doing extensive research into reducing the effects of global warming on cities through the heat-island effect, and trying to design “a climate-smart city,” he says.

Bridging internally and connecting externally

The University of Minnesota is doing terrific work in addressing climate change via the three aforementioned perspectives, Foley says. 

“Very few universities in the world could even come close to this kind of balanced portfolio of expertise,” he notes, “especially on the ‘What can you do about it?’ part.” 

The challenge, of course, is gathering the research happening at various colleges and across the entire University of Minnesota system and combining it in ways that lead to even more creative solutions.

That’s where the Institute on the Environment comes in.

“We’ve been helping to connect the dots,” Foley says. Even more important is that these ideas and solutions get out into the world, he adds, and a joint legislative hearing filled with politicians concerned about Minnesota’s future is a great place to start. 

“That’s the real job—to bridge internally and then connect externally,” he says. 

The U researchers who testified at the joint legislative hearing were Mark Seeley, a climatologist in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate; Harvey Thorleifson, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and director of the Minnesota Geological Survey; Peter Reich, Regents Professor in the Department of Forest Resources; Nick Jordan, professor of agronomy and plant genetics; and Bonnie Keeler, a grad student who studies the economics of land use.