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Experts predict more severe weather in coming years

A huge wave explodes against a cliff on Lake Superior near the mouth of the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 6
Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 6
A large wave shoots water over 100 feet in the air as it hits a cliff on Lake Superior near the mouth of Crystal Creek in Tettegouche State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 6
Two pedestrians are hit by water overflowing the Duluth Ship Canal during Wednesday's storm. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Waves explode over large cliffs on Lake Superior near the mouth of Crystal Creek in Tettegouche State Park. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 6
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It was the morning of the great storm of 2018... Wait, which one?

It might be time to start naming all the Lakewalk-destroying storms like the one Duluth suffered Wednesday, as experts say they're likely to increase frequency in the future.

Already in the past 20 years it has been markedly wetter and windier in St. Louis County, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's storm event database. The increasing intensity and frequency of severe weather is a trend expected to continue as the climate changes.

"There is this trend toward the climate getting warmer and also getting wetter in Minnesota, in St. Louis County," said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist with the state Department of Natural Resources Climatology Office. "Over the long-term, rare events are becoming slightly less rare. ... Some of these storms have a tendency to be bigger than they were historically, and the precipitation increases are manifest in both summer and winter."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a major report released last week the planet is already 1 degree celsius warmer compared to pre-industrial days, which is resulting in changing weather patterns.

"One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic Sea ice, among other changes," Panmao Zhai, one of the thousands of scientists involved with the United Nations-backed organization, said in the report's summary.

Still, it is difficult to say with high certainty what the weather will be like over the next several days, much less when and where severe weather will hit in the coming months, years and decades.

Through July, National Weather Service offices throughout the Midwest were wrong about severe thunderstorm predictions about half the time, on average. In Duluth the false-alarm rate was 54 percent.

For the coming winter, forecasters are predicting "equal chances for precipitation to be above or below normal," and above-average temperatures driven by a strengthening El Nino cycle.

"This doesn't mean we won't have cold stretches," said meteorologist Joe Moore with the National Weather Service in Duluth. "On average we receive a total of around 70 inches of snowfall, and there are equal chances we could receive more or less than this for the upcoming winter."

As for the years ahead, the NWS focuses on short-term predictions, though given recent patterns Moore said they can be sure about this: "We are certain that there will be severe weather in the future, and Northland residents should be prepared for extreme weather year-round. Extreme rainfall events and flooding have increased over the last century, and these trends are expected to continue."

'Certifiable change'

Climate and weather are not the same thing, and the former influences the latter in very intricate ways.

Here's how the American Association of State Climatologists puts it: "Weather is like a person's day to day mood, while climate is like their personality."

Here's another of their analogies: "As you stand there, trying to cross a street, weather is the car. Climate is the traffic."

So when you hear the traffic is going to be bad and getting worse in coming years, it doesn't mean every car on the road is a tank.

"It doesn't mean every year you see more and bigger rainfalls than you saw the year before, it means on average the typical place is wetter with more 1- or 2-inch rainfalls than there were 30, 50, 70 and 100 years ago," Blumenfeld said. "And at the same time, the heaviest rainfall of the year tended to be larger than it was previously."

It's becoming less common to have a year without a flood or heavy rain event than it used to be, according to NOAA's storm event database. Since 2008 St. Louis County has seen only three years without severe flooding or heavy rain. Between 1997 and 2007 there were only three years with heavy rain events.

Blumenfeld said the region is in an especially wet cycle, but the cycle itself is reaching new extremes.

"When you look at precipitation, we're cresting the ridge on the rollercoaster," he said. "We don't know how long that will continue, but it seems to be greater than the trend itself."

Though scientists say northern Minnesota will not see the kind of heat waves and over-95-degree days that more southern locales will increasingly endure in the coming decades, winters are getting shorter.

"The gist of it is the Duluth area, St. Louis County, is seeing two primary changes," Blumenfeld said. "One is a loss of extreme cold during the winter. Anybody in St. Louis County knows it still gets very, very cold, but some of the edge has been taken off of that. ... The other certifiable change all of Minnesota has seen is the increase in heavy and extreme rainfall events."

That's all based on recorded weather events up to this point. Translating that trend into specific short-term predictions is another story.

"Severe weather is driven by many factors on many scales, and while it's uncertain to say how precipitation impacts our severe weather chances, we are certain that every year will feature severe weather, and residents and visitors to the Northland should always be prepared," Moore said.

Resilience

The IPCC report issued last week said drastic, unprecedented changes to society are required to slow the Earth's warming and mitigate consequences like more severe weather.

So as Stanford researchers Michael D. Mastrandrea and Stephen H. Schneider wrote in the 2010 book "Preparing for Climate Change," communities should anticipate climate change and act accordingly.

"Alongside mitigation, then, we also need policies focused on adaptation, on making sensible adjustments to the unavoidable changes that we now face," they wrote.

A few years ago, Minnesota Power took a hard look at its systems and remade its emergency response plan. Among other policies, the Duluth-based utility with customers around the Northland aligned its response plans with FEMA and other first-responder standards.

"At a really high level, when we think about big weather events as a utility, we start with what are the really big things that can happen — kind of like our 2016 storm," said Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Power's director of distribution operations. "When you look at those medium-level events, similar to what you had (Wednesday), the majority of the storms you have a on a regular basis, you get into system design and situational awareness."

That means increasing automation and technology like smart meters to deal with outages, and update infrastructure to prevent them.

"We have a system that is resilient and robust already, and it's about making those top-end improvements," Gunderson said.

Residents can take a similarly hard look at how prepared they are for power outages or getting stranded at home due to extreme weather.

"Statistically, across the country with all weather events, the average customer has about one outage a year for about 100 minutes," Gunderson said. "Preparing for those types of situations, ask what's the level of outage you can sustain without it being a major influence on your life, and what you need to do to take the next step? Do you buy a backup generator, do you have another plan to leave your home?"

Even if we enter a dry spell — which climatologist Blumenfeld warns would itself be devastating for how overdue one is — the weather service says every year will see its share of extreme weather, and preparation is key.

"Preparing for extreme weather is important, because while extreme weather may be rare, it's likely everyone will experience numerous extreme weather events in their lifetime," Moore said. " At home, residents should prepare to survive without power for at least a few days year-round. In your vehicle, having a kit to survive in case you are stranded is strongly recommended. And year-round, we recommend everyone prepare for extreme weather by paying attention to the latest forecast."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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