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Climate columns: Changes come to winter climate

Katya Gordon

A big change has come to Two Harbors. Have you noticed?

Ice covers Lake Superior as far as the eye can see. I see this with my eyes, but I also feel it every morning as I trek through the snow near the shore. No more moist, relatively mild air wafting in from the east. No more clouds of moisture over open water on cold mornings.

In short, no respite from the cold, crisp air for us until wind or currents move the ice away, which could happen tomorrow. Ice is endlessly fascinating to me; every winter without Lake Superior ice is disappointing.

Thanks to climate change, winters without ice on Lake Superior are becoming more frequent. If you haven't been to the lighthouse in recent weeks, I recommend finding a sunny day to stroll out to the break wall. Bring your sunglasses and a scarf for your face. The ice shards that catch the sunlight as they stick up every which way, as far as the eye can see, are breathtaking.

As "real winter" continues in northern Minnesota despite the slow start (remember the terribly sledding conditions at Christmas?), here is a little commentary by Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist at the Minnesota Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. Referencing late January-early February when our lives were heavily influenced by snow, cold or wind, he writes: "The special ingredient making the last two weeks so remarkable is the apparent compression of time. It's like all the major weather events of winter were placed in a plastic bag and then vacuum-sealed so that they all got smashed together."

He also notes: "And despite the cold-dominant pattern we've been enjoying (or not), temperatures since Dec. 1 are still mostly near or slightly above average."

Winter is the time when climate change feels the scariest to me. I thrive on the clear, empty air, the brilliant night sky, the crisp white ski tracks and the frosty breath. In the fall of 1991, my first months ever in this state, the Halloween snowstorm brought everyone to a grand halt. Boots came out, shovels were lifted, hills were sledded, wood piles were filled, and everyone was cheerful.

"Here we go!" they seemed to be saying. I was enchanted.

Global warming affects different areas differently, and different seasons differently. Winter temperatures in the upper Midwest have risen 1.2 degrees per decade, on average, since 1970, while summer temperatures have risen 0.9 degrees. By far the most dramatic warming occurs during winter nights, where the deep colds (35 degrees below zero or lower) have dropped in both frequency and duration.

If this seems like a very small change, here is a helpful analogy. Think of the Earth as a body like a human body, which is stable at a very specific temperature — 98.6 degrees for most people.

Having a constant new "norm" of 99.8 degrees, a rise of 1.2 degrees, would constitute a "low-grade fever." No one with that kind of raised temperature feels healthy.

Like a body with chronic fever, long-term solutions that address the cause of the problem exist. What remains, but is growing, is the will to do them at a speed that will bring the fever under control.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.