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No hurricanes or rising seas, but natural hazards still impact Midwest

August 15, 2023

The Central states — and the Great Lakes, in particular — have typically avoided the natural hazards that are challenging East and West coasts: sea level rise, hurricanes, and drought. However, weather patterns are changing as more natural hazards will impact the Midwest.

The upper basin of the Mississippi River flooded to near-record levels as heavy, wet snowpack melted during “unseasonably warm” spring days. But drought now plagues much of the region, especially corn and soybean growers. Conditions are forecasted to persist through September.

Wisconsin state climatologist Steve Vavrus reflects on the first half of this year alone. Volatility, or the extreme shift from wet to dry periods, is predicted to occur more frequently based on climate models.

Minnesota is getting warmer and wetter.

“In the Great Lakes basin, the annual mean (air) temperature was 1.6°F warmer in 1985–2016 than 1901–1960, exceeding average changes of 1.2°F for the rest of the contiguous United States,” according to a 2019 analysis by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), “The region saw an almost 10% increase (between 1901 and 2015) with more precipitation coming as unusually large events.”

Data from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) show a “massive increase in large rainfall events since 2000; storms that produce more than 6 inches of rain have been occurring four times more often in the 20th Century.” Early this spring, meltoff from a record snowfall and a few heavy rain storms brought about flooding across the state. In addition to declaring an emergency, Governor Tim Walz and state legislators established a disaster assistance bill to help address flood damage. On a smaller scale, DNR data also reveal that since 2000, the number of rain events greater than 3 inches has increased by 65 percent. The number of rain events with more than one inch of rainfall has increased by 20 percent.

Minnesota State Climatologist, Dr. Kenny Blumenfeld said that the current trend of dry and really wet periods “can and likely will change (with) the warming atmosphere.” Most moisture is expected, but it’s not “clear when that moisture will come” and “that water has to go somewhere.”

The Midwest and Great Lakes have mostly avoided the highest levels of heat. Studies of past data indicate that summers over the Central U.S. have experienced a lessor degree of summer warming. While summer temperatures aren’t rising as quickly as other regions, Midwesterners are likely to see more “extremely hot” days in the future. Developed cities can expect to experience the heat island effect, as tall buildings and narrow streets block wind flow and provide natural cooling.

Cities and counties can better track and forecast weather trends by deploying weather sensors, which can monitor rainfall as well as temperatures year round. Water utilities can better analyze water resources data to ensure clean water and control flooding risks. In addition, public agencies can partner with offices of state climatologists and university researchers to share critical weather data.