How vulnerable is Minnesota to climate change?

Drought. Extreme heat. Heavy downpours. Air pollution. Vector-borne diseases like tick-borne and the West Nile virus. Flooding. Those climate hazards present major challenges to the quality of life in Minnesota and Wadena County has some of the m...


Drought. Extreme heat. Heavy downpours. Air pollution. Vector-borne diseases like tick-borne and the West Nile virus. Flooding.

Those climate hazards present major challenges to the quality of life in Minnesota and Wadena County has some of the most vulnerable populations in the state, according to a Minnesota Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment.

The report, released through the Minnesota Department of Health, was designed to advance understanding and begin discussions at the local level by providing more data about who may be most at risk. A second Minnesota Climate and Health Profile was released this week.

"Understanding who is more vulnerable and where the most vulnerable populations reside will greatly improve planning for climate hazards and will help allocate limited resources to those most affected by climate hazards," the health department reported.

Wadena County was one of 11 counties in Minnesota with the highest ranking in composite population and its vulnerability. Factors included the number of older residents; those living in poverty; non-English speakers; and workers employed in certain industries - agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, mining or construction.


Kelly Muellman, Minnesota Climate and Health Program planner, was the lead author on the project. Muellman said the report didn't include projections but looked at climate hazards in existence now.

"The trends already show these issues are getting worse and we can document there are health connections," Muellman said.

Measurably warmer

According to the health profile report, Minnesota has become measurably warmer, particularly in the last few decades, and precipitation patterns have become more erratic, including heavier rainfall events. The state reports "climate projections indicate these trends are likely to continue well into the current century and may worsen, according to some scenarios. Based on the trends and projections made by numerous climate researchers, the profile identified four climate hazards most likely to occur and assessed the potential health impacts on Minnesotans." In Minnesota, a focus of concern comes from three climate change trends using National Weather Service records going back to 1891. Climate change trends include temperature, oppressive heat with humidity and precipitation.

The assessments findings include:

• Average temperature is increasing across all seasons.

• A clear upward temperature trend started in the 1980s.

• Minnesota was the ninth fastest warming state in the country since 1912.


• Minnesota was the third fastest warming state since 1970.

• Winter temperatures are rising twice as fast as annual average temperatures.

• Overnight lows are rising faster than daytime highs.

The findings are from the weather service records and a national study on temperature trends. A warmer winter or wider range in winter temperatures could negatively affect native plants and wildlife and increase pests such as ticks. The report noted an increase in freeze-thaw cycles could mean more damage to infrastructure. More rain may fall than snow, damaging dormant crops that depend on an insulating snow blanket.

Potential for extreme heat events

On the other side of the coin, summers could be warmer with a higher dew-point average, which measures the water vapor in the air. A dew point of 70 is considered uncomfortable. As it climbs higher it leads to oppressive heat. The second major climate change trend in Minnesota is a potential for more of those oppressive days. Heat-related stress illnesses could become more common and hit harder in counties with older populations.

The assessment reported another climate change trend has to do with precipitation as heavy precipitation events are more localized meaning flooding in some areas and dry to drought conditions in others.

Climate change can be a controversial topic. Muellman said they rely on the science and 99 percent of client scientists agree it is happening. She said they aren't focusing on the why, but are focusing on their job to protect public health.


Wadena County had one to three extreme heat events declared between 1995 and 2012.

Wadena County's older population, with more of those adults living alone and in poverty, combined to make them more susceptible to a heat-related illness. Wadena has a moderate heat vulnerability in a composite score looking at the risk of an extreme heat event combined with an aging population, living alone and in poverty.

Wadena, Cass, Morrison, Mille Lacs counties all had a moderate risk. Crow Wing County has a low risk and Aitkin County a mild risk.

Older residents living alone at higher risk

In central Minnesota, Wadena County stood out starkly from its neighbors for having the highest number of households of single adults 65 or older at 16.4 percent to 20 percent, and the highest percentage of the population living in poverty at 15.8 percent to 21 percent.

Aitkin County came in second regarding percentage of people 65 and older at 12.8 percent to 16.3 percent but a lower percentage of the population lives in poverty at 10.4 percent to 15.7 percent.

Wadena County also ranks in the top tier of counties with the most employees in the construction industry, or those whose livelihoods mean potentially working in extreme heat events.

Crow Wing, Cass, Todd, Morrison and Mille Lacs all had smaller percentages of older populations and those in poverty but had a higher number of extreme heat events. Those five counties were in the 9.2 percent to 12.7 percent range for population at age 65 and older and in the 10.4 percent to 15.7 percent range for percentage of population in poverty. Morrison and Mille Lacs counties had smaller percentages of workers in construction industry jobs. In the region, Todd County had the fewest percentage of workers in construction jobs.


Every community, Muellman said, has vulnerable populations and needs to plan in order to provide additional assistance to the most vulnerable. The health department created maps to show which counties faced the greatest challenges.

Impacts of climate change

"It did help reaffirm what we thought we knew," Muellman said, adding that going through the exercise provided real data instead of hunches or anecdotal information. "We are hoping to work with some local communities to provide technical assistance to do some of this analysis on a smaller geographic scale."

"We now have two important tools for Minnesotans to use to help gauge the potential health impacts of climate change in their communities and develop strategies to lessen or adapt to those impacts," said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger in a news release.

The health department is now conducting listening sessions across the state to talk to local public health and emergency preparedness managers. For Muellman, the data gathered is a driver in getting people to look at the local level, right down to specific neighborhoods, in an effort to develop best practices to prepare for an emergency before it happens.

"I think partly it reaffirms some of the changes they are seeing," Muellman said. "We do know we are seeing a lot more variability in weather and a lot of changes in ecosystems."

The effects, she said, go beyond the surface. For example, in a severe drought the damage to infrastructure and the economic system may be apparent. But health issues may take a little more time to manifest as a drought has the potential to destroy livelihoods, displaces jobs and breaks up entire small communities.

"A drought year can really destroy the foundation of a community," Muellman said. "It can have some really big impacts on social and mental health and I think that is one area that is often overlooked."


But Muellman noted mental health issues can lead to physical health concerns. When a climate hazard like a flood wipes out a community's infrastructure, the effects may be long and lasting.

Heidi Happle, community health specialist at Wadena County public health, said the county collaborates with community partners to develop plans to respond to all types of emergencies.

"As plans are developed, we review data being attentive to the different needs of residents living in Wadena County, the Minnesota Department of Health Climate Change Vulnerabilities Assessment aligns with needs we have identified," Happle said.

In crafting the report, the state health department wanted to understand how climate change affects the health of Minnesotans, right down the county level. The pilot project was conducted from November 2012 to August 2014.

"The assessment found that the climate hazards (a natural disaster or weather event or biological threat like a tick-borne disease) have affected every county to varying degrees and that all counties contain vulnerable populations, which may change and grow overtime," the health department reported. "The report advances our understanding of several of these climate hazards and the populations that are most vulnerable to the hazards."

Mille Lacs County joined Wadena County in the group of the highest ranking. Twenty-five counties had eight to nine vulnerable populations, including Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison and Aitkin counties. Twenty-one counties had six to seven vulnerable populations, including Todd and Hubbard counties.

In the central region Aitkin, Crow Wing, Cass and Wadena counties all had one to three extreme heat events declared between 1995 and 2012. Todd, Morrison and Mille Lacs counties had six to seven extreme heat events in that same time period.

Regional climate, vegetation and land use are considered key factors in the increase. The metropolitan areas have the urban heat island effect with impervious surfaces, which can raise temperatures anywhere from 5 degrees to 22 degrees. The report noted small cities are not immune from a heat island effect. Much depends on cloud cover and wind when it comes to warmer winter temps and how sultry summer nights can be. The Twin Cities area had the most extreme heat events with eight to nine between 1995 and 2012. By comparison, Cook, Koochiching and Itasca counties had none.


People at risk in extreme heat events include older adults, young children, those without air-conditioning, people living in poverty, in nursing homes, with medical conditions, living alone, outside workers, athletes exercising outside and people living in urban areas and in top-floor apartments. Those living close to or below the poverty level are less likely to have air-conditioning, or money for higher electric bills to run fans. They may be less likely to go to a cooling center or open windows out of a concern for safety.

People age 65 and older have the highest rates of heat-related illness and deaths.
"Older adults who live alone and/or below the poverty line are particularly vulnerable ..." the report noted.

How is climate change defined?

Climate change is defined as a departure from the expected average weather patterns, which may result from changes in the sun's intensity, ocean circulation and human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation or reforestation and urbanization.

Three major concerns listed in the health departments Climate Change 101, which lists the last few decades of observations, were:

• The rate of change "unprecedented in recent history."

• It is "extremely likely human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th Century."

• Changes "will likely have consequences on the health of the public."

"With this information, state and local government, companies, institutions and community organizations can begin important discussions about the risks of climate change to their communities, how best to prepare for them and how to protect everyone, including the most vulnerable, to ensure a healthy and prosperous state," the report states.

• The full report is available online at

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5852 or . Follow on Twitter at .

What To Read Next
Get Local