Climatologist reflects on Minnesota weather

BLUE EARTH – Did you know Minnesota holds the records for the coldest temperature and for the highest heat index?

So says Dr. Mark Seeley, climatologist/meteorologist for the University of Minnesota Extension. He spoke Wednesday at the 2013 Surface Water Forum in Hamilton Hall in Blue Earth.

The town of Tower recorded minus 60 degrees on Feb. 2, 1996, beating out even Alaska for frigidity. Meanwhile, Moorhead recorded a 134-degree heat index on July 19, 2011.

“That’s Persian Gulf air,” Seeley said. “It’s a North American record.”

Minnesota may be known for its cold and snow, but expect more of the heat in the future, he warned.

Seeley’s talk on climate trends kicked off the forum. Attendees then split into groups attending talks on urban stormwater or rural land use.

Michele Wigern of Faribault County Soil & Water plans to make the forum an annual event.

Seeley has been studying the climate for the University of Minnesota since 1976, when he was recruited from NASA. That is a long time, he acknowledged, but the data on Minnesota weather goes back even further.

“The measured data in the state of Minnesota goes back to 1807,” Seeley said.

But it is the more recent data that is getting attention.

“2012 was the warmest year in the continental United States, emphatically – it obliterated other records,” Seeley said.

“In the month of March alone, just in the Minnesota observation network, we set 768 temperature records, making March of 2012, the single-greatest weather anomaly in Minnesota history,” he said.

But there have been a few others.

The first time Minnesota led the nation in tornadoes was 2010 with 130. One of the reasons was June 17, when the state got hit with 48, also a record.

“That’s what you call a high-stress day,” Seeley said.

From 1901-2012, temperatures have been getting warmer all over the earth, Seeley said, but they are not changing uniformly.

He said from 1895 to 2012, the mean average temperature in Minnesota was trending upward, and the last three decades is moving steeply upward.

This translates to more liquid precipitation.

Of the top 20 wettest Aprils and Mays in south-central Minnesota, 14 have occurred since 1983.

Again, 2010 took top honors; it was the wettest year in the state’s history with 34 inches average.

Years ago, just the southeastern tip of Minnesota would record 29 or more inches of precipitation in a year. From 1981-2010, more than half of the state got 29 or more inches a year.

It’s raining more and snowing less.

“Thirty degrees warmer than normal in January on individual days,” Seeley said. “Almost every place in the country is now showing a warmer annual minimum.”

For summer, that translates into more nights when we don’t cool down lower than 80 degrees.

All this warmth has consequences:

o The soil and lakes aren’t freezing as deeply or for as long.

o Crop residue is breaking down faster.

o Farmers are having to put nitrogen on their soil much later because soil temperatures stay warmer longer.

o Insects, pests, parasites and other bugs are surviving the winter and procreating.

o There is an increased number of freeze and thaw cycles when the temperature hovers near 32 degrees more often. This creates challenges for road maintenance.

o Growing seasons have lengthened by 14 to 18 days in some places.

o The allergy season has lengthened as well. Mayo Clinic in Rochester has extended the allergy season into the second week of December, the latest ever.

There’s no one cause for it all, but Seeley believes three things contribute: greenhouse gases, natural variations and changing landscape when humans remove vegetation.

“I do put my trust in the data that we’ve collected generation to generation and it’s telling us something,” Seeley said. “The climate is different from what it’s been in the past. God gave us the intelligence … to do something with it.”