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A habitual early-riser, I often don’t sleep well in hotels, so I was up early doomscrolling pre-dawn. Given time zone differences, the European climate scientists I follow hold court during my early mornings. She surprised me a bit to be suddenly in my face in the dark. “Its cancelled!” she said. “The race is cancelled.”
Marathon organizers declared October 1 a “Black Flag” day because of forecasted dangerous heat and humidity in Minneapolis/St. Paul, thereby canceling the Twin Cities Marathon.
My daughter trained for the marathon and was excited to run, as was my son’s girlfriend and my daughter’s friends. The night before, my wife and I hosted the ebullient runners, some local cousins and significant others for dinner at a nice Italian place downtown. It was great fun.
Our runners assessed themselves and quickly organized to run anyway, leaving nearly immediately to take advantage of an extra hour of morning relative coolness. Carol and I organized strategically to intersect the course to cheer our runners on and supply them with water along the route. It turned into an unplanned pleasant adventure.
We weren’t alone. Hundreds of runners ran too, supported by several hundreds of us lesser humans (crude estimations on my part), cheering and ringing cowbells, and handing out water and snacks. It had a true community vibe. The course routed through beautiful parts of the Cities, charming homes on shady manicured lots, lakeside trails, a greenway along the Mississippi.
Intention and preparation create their own momentum in reality, and I hoped that the black flag warning prevented heat injury from those who were susceptible.
To understand how hot it was on October 1 in Minneapolis, compare it to historic data. Local news reported a high of 92◦F. Historic data, going back to 1980, suggested that the mean temperature for October 1 is 63◦F. The upper 90th percentile is somewhere around 72◦F. On the figure from weatherspark.com, 92◦F isn’t even on the scale – a true anomaly even allowing for the fact that the 40-year dataset has an embedded warming trend.
After the race, I left the Cities for Duluth and then Ashland, to guest lecture and meet with collaborators about an academic book proposal. I enjoy traveling north and watching forests and wetlands assume more boreal character as I traverse the floristic tension zone. It’s troubling though, knowing that that tension zone was itself retreating north too.
My culpability was riding shotgun and we talked it over on the way up. I wondered at the emissions of my little weekend jaunt, my privilege navigating the blighted parts of the Cities where graffiti still poignantly memorializes George Floyd, and the niggling futility I feel.
Summer 2023 was the hottest on record. NASA’s earth observatory estimated that by August, earth had warmed to 1.17◦ C above pre-industrial levels. Here in the Great Lakes region, we choked on smoke from Canadian wildfires and watched news of catastrophic flooding and heatwaves around the world bleed through persistent news of political perfidy, and cartoonish bombastic corruption. Ocean surface temperatures are the highest ever recorded and Antarctic sea ice is the lowest ever recorded.
In a global sense, and assuming the best-case scenario, 2023 could be a statistical outlier like the October 1 temperature in Minneapolis (understood in isolation). However, the underlying warming trend is well known and the link to human activity is well established. Conversely, if important planetary thresholds are being passed on the way to accelerated climate chaos, the October 1 temperature in Minneapolis and the extremes globally of 2023 are what early harbingers would look like.
The IPCC 6th Synthesis report (Summary for makers, page 7) says that we are essentially one human lifespan away from global temperature increase of 2◦C or higher unless we act with all urgency to reduce carbon emissions. The human costs for failing to do so are horrifically grim.
On my last-pass edit of this post, I removed a paragraph about the black flag details – feeling the climate-scientists’ dilemma for how to communicate the science without driving despair, and consequently, disengagement. Apologies, but my capacity for grim reality is sodden and saturated this week (contact me if you want a link to a paper to get you started, though).
Climate Scientist Kevin Anderson (Universities of Manchester, Uppsala, and Bergen) writes that “I think all of climate change pushes our imagination to the extreme so the one thing I will say is that there are no non-radical futures.”
The quote has been interrogating my activities since I encountered it. What are the presumptive futures assumed in the dissertation draft I am reading, the student milestones I facilitate, the teaching I do, the leadership I contribute to my church and my university? Will our radical future finally address creation’s groaning and humanity’s peril or will we descend further into chaos and injustice? What must I do to help realize the former, to prepare the young people I influence?
On my way home, I diverted from highway 2 to Saxon Harbor. To get there, you tunnel through a wooded corridor of fall-flaming maples, birches, and aspens, downslope to the little county park where a few boats were still moored late.
I come here because Lake Superior stretches out boundless to the northern horizon while red cliffs behind you wrap your senses under a steep earthen wall, reflecting one’s imagination out on the vastness, and in my case, holding me distant for a time from my home, my church, my UW, my responsibilities and all the daily anxieties I attach to them. There was a woman sunning herself on the red rocks a hundred yards off and the Lake was only barely lapping a lazy glassy rhythm. Charred logs were piled up on the high-water terrace. Intention and preparation create their own momentum in reality. I stepped in and wet my face.
It was 88◦F.