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University of Minnesota

Climate Change and Rivers: Prognosis for the Upper Mississippi

Writing as part of the “Earth Journal” blog on, Ron Meador recently summarized some of the key takeaway points for the Upper Midwest from the National Climate Assessment report released in May.  His verdict: hotter summers, longer dry periods, bigger downpours when it does rain.

Incidentally, the 2.37 inches of rain the Twin Cities got on Sunday June 1 is a record for that date.  Just sayin.’

What does the National Climate Assessment offer in terms of the future of rivers in the Upper Midwest?  Some quick points:

  • Flood magnitudes are expected to increase, both in the Mississippi River Basin,and, perhaps more alarming, in the Red River of the North;
  • Water quality and quantity are being affected by complex changes in patterns of the hydrologic cycle such as the timing and volume of rains;
  • Changes in growing seasons are likely to affect crop patterns, thereby altering shipping needs on the Mississippi;

More locally, the St. Croix River may see “monster” algal blooms by 2050, owing to higher water temperatures and reduced summer flows.

It seems fair to guess that many of these anticipated disruptions may change the ways some of us who work on river issues do things.  For instance, does it make sense to talk about “ecosystem restoration” on the Upper Mississippi when the dynamics that create the landscape and fluvial patterns in the region are fundamentally altered?  If “restoration” isn’t the right term, then what might be?

At River Life, we are increasingly understanding that responding to questions such as these is central to our work.  One of the things that universities are really good at is thinking on longer time horizons than some of our community partners.  In fact, some people think that our primary responsibilities are not to replicate the work our partners do but to consider a wider range of potential scenarios, bring up new issues ahead of their coming to public attention, imagine new futures beyond the urgency of the daily grind.

Climate change and rivers: a conversation that is just getting started and not stopping any time soon.  Let us know specifically what you’d like to hear about.



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One Comment

  1. Colm BarryJuly 5, 2014 at 7:34 am

    “Flood magnitudes are expected to increase” – Well, in Europe at least closer inspection has shown that the higher magnitudes seem have more to do with damming and with sealing off surfaces that used to be flooded on previous occasions.The governments also have created moral hazards by allowing zoning to move ever closer to river banks, then later bailing out the owners who got flooded.

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