Climate Change Impacts Hit Close to Home

Climate Change Impacts Hit Close to Home

By Julie O’Leary, Associate Director

Duluth, Minnesota has been my home for more than twenty years. It’s a great place to live—a green city with abundant parks, trails, and streams overlooking Lake Superior at its western terminus. Duluth made national headlines earlier this summer when 10 inches of rain fell on northern Minnesota in two days. Images of flooded parking lots, stranded cars, collapsing streets, and washed out bridges appeared on media outlets from Facebook to the Weather Channel. When the water receded, estimates of the damage to Duluth and surrounding communities in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Located on a hill, Duluth is not a community where flooding is expected, but the combination of heavy downpours and soils saturated from several weeks of wet weather produced flash flood conditions in the many streams that flow through northeast Minnesota (more than 40 streams and two rivers run through the city alone). In surrounding rural communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, extensive flooding along the St. Louis and other rivers inundated homes and entire communities.

Severe storms are just one of the ways the impacts of climate change are being felt in the Great Lakes region. Others include less lake ice cover in winter, warmer water temperatures in lakes and streams, changes in lake levels, warmer air temperatures, and more pests and diseases. The type of extreme storm event that the Duluth-Superior area experienced is becoming more common and widespread, and also more expensive. Damage to public infrastructure—roads, bridges, and sewer systems— alone from the June storm is estimated at nearly $120 million. Sadly, many homeowners learned that flood damage they experienced will not be covered by insurance.

Our region will be a long time recovering from the damage. An army of citizen volunteers turned out over the summer to help clean up beaches, parks, and private homes and begin repairs to trails. Repairs to roads, bridges, and buildings are also underway. The impact of the large volume of run-off on water quality in Lake Superior is still being assessed, but a large plume of sediment was visible on aerial photographs of the western end of the lake for weeks after There are actions we can take to make our communities more resilient in the face of storms like the one northern Minnesota experienced, as well as the other impacts of climate change. These include the use of “green infrastructure”—grassy swales, permeable pavement, and rain gardens—to increase infiltration of rainwater and decrease run-off, limiting the amount and location of paved surfaces, making sure stormwater infrastructure is appropriately sized, protecting wetlands, and providing shade corridors to keep urban streams cool.

Freshwater Future is working with our members in communities around the Great Lakes to promote and support climate adaptation. Our Great Lakes Community Climate Program provides tools, training, support, and funding to help community and watershed groups learn how to include climate adaptation in their work and the decisions their communities make. Freshwater Future partners with EcoAdapt, a national leader in helping communities to adapt to climate change, to offer climate symposia twice yearly. Symposia attendees are eligible to apply for climate adaptation grants to support their on-the ground projects.

For more information about the Great Lakes Climate Program, our next Climate Symposia in October, and climate grants, check out our website at, or contact me at (231) 838-9934. Great Lakes communities can’t afford not to include climate adaptation in our planning and decision-making!



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.