Changing climate, changing river

Flooded river at Harriet Island

Partly a result of more frequent and intense precipitation caused by climate change, flooding gives us a sober reminder: We'll have more water problems as climate change continues.

We regularly write about climate change, its effects on our river and what we're doing to increase resilience and reduce pollution. Learn more about how climate change will supercharge pollution from agricultural landscapes, how we're choosing species for our restoration projects with climate in mind, and how we factor climate change into our riverfront development advocacy.

Find our ongoing climate change updates. And sign up for twice-monthly e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages, to get articles like these delivered to your inbox.

Note to FMR members: On this page, you'll find several pieces we couldn't fit in our newsletter climate change feature, like info on invasives and further resources.

What does climate change look like in Minnesota?

At current emission trends, most modeling predicts:

  • Hotter average temperatures across the state, including warmer winters (Did you know Minneapolis is the second fastest-warming city in the country? And by 2080, the Twin Cities might feel more like Lansing, Kansas in terms of average temperatures and precipitation.)
  • More frequent, more intense rain and storm events leading to more flash flooding
  • More frequent late-summer drought
  • Shifting ecosystems: Our woodlands will migrate north and east as our now-western prairie replaces former forests

Climate change and the Mississippi River

Those basic changing trends translate to some major impacts on the Mississippi River, its surrounding natural lands and communities. Here's what we're focused on:

More rain = more runoff pollution

Intense rain events and flooding wash even more of what’s on our land into our waters. In fact, scientists expect nitrate runoff pollution in the upper Mississippi River basin to increase by about 24% during the 21st century.

That means we can’t protect the river (or our lakes or drinking water) unless we stem the flow of fertilizer. And we can’t do that without addressing its chief source: our agricultural system.

FMR is a key leader in a growing movement to support the integration of new, innovative clean-water crops that can cover our soil and hold it (and fertilizer) in place.

Since urban runoff contributes to river pollution too, our volunteers also mark storm drains with the reminder to “Keep ’em clean, drains to river." You can stencil storm drains on your own in St. Paul with our DIY stenciling kit.

And at dozens of our restoration sites, volunteers put long-rooted native plants in the ground to help the land filter runoff pollution and absorb more water, keeping washouts and erosion at bay. In addition to shielding our waters from erosion and pollution during major runoff events, longer roots and more plants — whether in forests, farm fields, parks or backyards — also sequester more carbon, fighting the cause of climate change as well as its impacts.

Supporting migration

Connected habitat along the river corridor will be crucial for climate-forced migrators. (Aerial photo by Tom Reiter)

Within 50 years, climatic conditions for the western third of our state’s prairie will expand north and east.

As wildlife attempt to follow their vanishing habitat, biologists have identified river corridors as particularly important for their migration and survival.

Since our founding, FMR has partnered with many agencies and organizations to preserve as much riverine habitat as possible, aiming to create corridors for wildlife. So far we’ve protected over 1,000 acres and are restoring over 2,000.

Yet, says FMR Conservation Director Betsy Daub, “climate change creates an urgency to try to connect habitat wherever we can.”

Invasives on the move

As plants and animals that contribute to healthy ecosystems migrate, so will those that degrade habitat.

Flooding aids invasive carp and other aquatic invasives in jumping watersheds. Fewer periods of deep freezes allow pests like emerald ash borer to survive through winter at higher rates than in the past. And in response to climatic changes, our habitats will shift, leaving openings for more invasive plants to find a toehold and spread.

But our ecological restoration effects can help combat these invasions. “As we restore a diverse community, it becomes more self-sustaining and needs less effort on our part to continue to thrive,” says FMR Ecologist Alex Roth.

Plus, if one species wanes under increasing temperatures or other climatic stress, its neighbors might fill in the gap it leaves behind. The mix of plant species in a diverse community decreases its chances of collapse.

Habitats great and small

Monarchs and other pollinators need nectar-rich flowers like this blazing star for energy.

Erratic weather and unpredictable seasonal changes can create timing mismatches for species that depend on each other.

Pollinators, for example, may emerge hungry in spring only to find fewer nectar sources in bloom than usual. This heightens the need for habitat — both large-scale (like our restoration sites) and small.

Even a tiny backyard garden of native blooms can help butterflies, bees and other pollinators survive. Learn more about turning your yard into river- and critter-friendly habitat.

Riverfront development with climate change and community in mind

Parks and developments will need to consider flooding, runoff and erosion even more seriously.

When it comes to riverfront development and increasing rains, says FMR River Corridor Director Colleen O’Connor Toberman, “Our planning standards around stormwater and erosion need to evolve, particularly in sensitive areas along the river.”

Luckily, we’re able to hang our hat on improved Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rules FMR helped create. But a booming real estate market will test the strengths of these standards and the resolve of local elected officials to stand behind them.

We expect to increasingly weigh in on metro development proposals — especially those seeking variances from the new river rules — with an eye to erosion control, landslide prevention and stormwater management.

We're also weighing in on plans to shape our riverfront for access and park spaces. Because of the urban heat island effect, temps will rise even higher in urban areas, as will stress levels. Parks and green spaces help with both, not to mention air quality, runoff pollution reduction and wildlife habitat. This is particularly important in areas with less green space, often home to more people with lower incomes and people of color.

More climate change resources