Duluth’s future climate

Dr. Sakib Mahmud

Duluth has been getting a lot of buzz lately as a “climate refuge.” In the past three years, stories featuring Lake Superior and the cityscape have appeared on CNN, in The New York Times and around the world via Reuters news service. 

Reporters interviewed researchers, city officials, social activists and even a handful of new residents from California and elsewhere who admitted fleeing annual fires and fears for what seems like a more secure home front on a changing planet.

But Dr. Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, would have told them there is no such thing as a climate-proof city.

“The state average is already wetter and warmer, and projections show Duluth is going to get hotter and wetter. How far, how fast is the wildcard that we don’t know,” Blumenfeld said.

The buzz about the city can be traced back to 2019 when Harvard professor Jesse Keenan, lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, made a presentation at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He outlined how Duluth could rebrand itself as a place to escape the harshest aspects of climate change: rising sea levels in coastal areas and extreme aridization (a long-term drying out process). 

His team’s research honed in on Duluth after more than more than 2,000 hours of work reviewing which U.S. towns might appeal to climate migrants and have room for them, according to a 2019 story by Sebastien Malo of Reuters. Among the city’s positive attributes: Lake Superior’s cooling effects and notoriously chilly winter temps that might look better with a little warming, a reasonable drive to the metro amenities of the Twin Cities, plus room to grow, according to Malo’s story.

Also in his evaluation, Keenan talked about how the city could capitalize on its best features: great architecture, an outdoor lifestyle and, most of all, Lake Superior. As the planet warms, Keenan said, fresh water will become more scarce and more valuable.

But even Duluth and its environs – just like everywhere else on the planet – will feel the effects of climate change, Blumenfeld noted.

Blumenfeld believes changes are already underway, with warmer winter temperatures and the wettest and second hottest decade recorded.

“Businesses are having a hard time adapting already, with less cold weather for winter recreation, and road maintenance hit hard keeping up with extreme storms that wipe out bridges and culverts,” Blumenfeld said.

Despite Northeastern Minnesota’s recent very dry weather, Blumenfeld said the overall trend is toward wetter weather. “We are now in a multi-year dry period, but that in no way pushes out the overall trend of the area being wetter. There are always ups and downs along the way. There will be interruptions like the drought we are now in, but it’s not a reversal. Our climate here is still getting wetter and warmer.”

The northern part of the state appears more affected by warming trends, he noted. In the northern tier, average temperatures are rising most dramatically in the winter, but also in every season during both day and night.

Changes such as less snow cover threaten existing winter recreation businesses, Blumenfeld said, but the appeal of warmer winter temperatures may seem like a climate haven to others.

“Lake Superior is always going to have a moderating effect on extremes relative to other places. Compared to places losing land to the sea or with a heat index increasingly over 100 degrees, Duluth looks pretty attractive,” he said.

City government already is adapting itself, trying to plan for climate change and exploring how to capitalize on it.

Mindy Granley, Duluth’s sustainability officer, said her relatively new position puts her in the role of bringing climate change into every conversation the city has, such as pest-resistant tree plantings for cooling green space as ecosystems change, and stormwater infrastructure that can withstand greater rainfall events. Climate relocation is also on her plate.

“Climate migration is part of the city’s focus on economic development as we are always looking for ways to grow and diversify, and we have to look at creating foundational infrastructure built around resiliency and adaptation for climate mitigation,” Granley said. 

Duluth’s Climate Emergency, declared by unanimous City Council vote this April, opened the way for the city to develop a Climate Action Work Plan with the goal of reducing the city’s emissions at least 80 percent by 2050. 

Granley said a plan to address specific extreme weather impacts will be completed by the end of 2021. “We have to ask what climate change has to do with everything, from reinvesting in stormwater infrastructure to who we can attract for business and industry expansion.” 

Acknowledging that Duluth’s reputation as an attractive outdoor city depends in great part on Lake Superior, Granley explained that the export of water from the Great Lakes is not allowed through an international agreement. 

“However, if someone wanted to set up an industry that used clean water it would be a great place for that, and as a city with great air and water quality, the responsible thing to do is to work on preserving that,” she said.

Some community activists are saying not so fast on the open invitation for climate refugees or businesses. Their scenario for that future raises concerns about excessive demands on affordable housing and infrastructure.

Jodi Slick, founder/CEO of the Duluth-based sustainability nonprofit Ecolibrium3, said the first order of business should be taking on social inequalities such as housing disparities to avoid climate gentrification. 

“We have to hit our disparities head-on now, especially for those who have been left out, like Indigenous people and people of color, where home owning already is further from their reach,” Slick said. 

Instead of trading on relative climate stability to draw climate migrants, Slick said the region must strengthen climate resiliency and equity for existing communities. 

“We could use climate change to economically harvest and attract certain companies, but we’d be missing the point if we don’t address the disparities that already exist. As a society, we can’t be successful unless we ensure that all people thrive.”

Before moving forward with recruiting newcomers, she said, changes must be made to the status quo, including improving aging infrastructure in light of changing conditions. “Bad things are going to happen. How can we make things less bad? That’s the question we should be asking.”

Businesses can and should be  part of that ongoing conversation, said Dr. Sakib Mahmud, associate professor in sustainable management and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

“It’s increasingly important for businesses to address sustainability,” he said. “This is what consumers and other key stakeholders’ demand, but also employees in the younger generation are willing to take pay cuts to work for a company that they trust is striving and aspiring to become a socially and environmentally responsible, sustainable business entity.” 

Mahmud is one of the steering committee members for the Regional Economic Indicators Forum (REIF), being held Oct. 26 in Duluth. Now in its ninth year, the conference draws large numbers of participants each year, evidence, Mahmud said, that businesses, elected officials and policy makers want the information to be shared. 

Twice a year, students from UWS, the University of Minnesota Duluth, and The College of St. Scholastica present current data on the state of economic affairs in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin to REIF attendees. 

Financial indicators about the housing market and consumer confidence, said Mahmud, are helping regional decision-makers shape a different kind of future in which transparency and accountability are expected by Millennials and Gen Zers.

The upcoming REIF conference will focus on the topic of a “circular economy” that tackles environmental challenges and values, which Mahmud insists is a critical retooling to the overarching approach to business.

“We have relied on an extractive approach in a linear economy where we take from nature, make waste and then forget about the waste. We have to break the cycle and think long-term,” Mahmud said.

He also anticipates a future emphasizing the region’s rich water resources while developing strategies to protect it and use it to promote this area.

“With water scarcity becoming more important in many parts of the country, we should think about ways to diversify and develop a sustainable economy around our rich water resources to attract people in our REIF region.”