Monc G. plays at the Wabun Picnic Area wading pool during a heat wave in Minneapolis on Tuesday. Image courtesy of Tim Evans, MPR News

Children laughed and shrieked as they ran through brightly colored pipes spurting streams of water across the newly opened splash pad at Currie Park, in Minneapolis’ Cedar–Riverside neighborhood. 

The new spouts and fountains helped the kids beat the oppressive heat bearing down in the late afternoon sun on June 8, as temperatures in Minnesota hovered over 90 degrees for the sixth consecutive day. 

“This is a big deal,” Munira Said, a 38-year-old mother of three, told Sahan Journal. 

Munira brought her daughters, ages 3, 6, and 8, to nearby Currie Park to help avoid the record heat wave hitting the Twin Cities this week. Her plan: let them cool off and play with their friends after a long year cooped up due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The new splash pad came just in time for families in Cedar–Riverside. The heat wave hitting Minnesota is unique in its intensity and length, and the time of year it is taking place. But climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels means that Minnesota is becoming warmer, and heat waves will come sooner and more frequently than in the past, scientists say.

A hot summer day can be fun for kids, but heat waves are dangerous for the elderly or those with conditions such as asthma. Metro hospitals say they are treating people in emergency rooms who are suffering from heat-related illnesses.

Heat like Minnesota is currently experiencing is typically reserved for August. June 9 marks the seventh day over 90 degrees in the Twin Cities, breaking a record for most consecutive 90-degree weather before June 15, according to meteorologists at MPR News. If the streak extends to Friday, it would tie the third-longest stretch over 90 degrees in the recorded history of Twin Cities weather. 

Currie Park is one of the busiest in south Minneapolis, according to Paul Jaeger, who manages the southside service area for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The park, located in a densely populated area home to a large East African immigrant community, had been without a water play source for the past two years while the splash pad and other features were under construction. 

“This is really helpful, because we can bring our kids out here every day,” Munira said. 

A new normal

Hot weather will come earlier in the summer and more intensely as the Earth gets hotter, according to meteorologist Sean Sublette with the nonprofit Climate Central, which publishes information on climate trends across the United States. 

“Events like what we’re going through now in Minnesota, incidents like these are going to become more common than they have in the past,” he said. 

Minnesota and the upper Midwest are becoming wetter and warmer due to climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels extracted from the Earth, like coal and gas. Heat waves that once struck every decade will begin to occur every couple of years, Sublette said. Climate change isn’t instantaneous, but it will make events like this week’s heat wave more common. 

In the coming decades, Minnesota weather could look a lot like present-day Missouri weather. 

Effectively, winter in Minnesota is shrinking and summer is expanding, Sublette said. Temperatures once reserved for August are happening in June, and that will continue. Minnesota’s continental climate—isolated and away from oceans—is already prone to drastic swings. But as the Earth warms, those swings will become even more dramatic and pronounced. 

Average summer temperatures in Minnesota are up 2.5 degrees since 1970, according to Climate Central. Today the Twin Cities has 14 more summer days with above average temperatures than it did 50 years ago. 

Summers are getting warmer in Minnesota due to climate change. Image courtesy of Climate Central

Preventing the worst outcomes from climate change is possible, Sublette said. Rapidly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning away from fossil fuels is key to ensuring Minnesota’s climate stays stable and recognizable. That means getting more power from renewable sources like solar and wind, reducing reliance on automobiles, and increasing energy efficiency. 

Many Minnesotans will be able to comfortably avoid the pitfalls of more severe weather swings. But low-income residents who lack air conditioning are more likely to bear the brunt of the warming planet.  About 87 percent of U.S. households have air conditioning, according to the Department of Energy. Those who lack air conditioning often come from communities of color

“Climate change disproportionately affects people who are not of means,” Sublette said.  

Low-income households in Minnesota are disproportionately people of color. About 10 percent of Minnesotans live in poverty, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. But those figures are higher for communities of color: 28 percent of Black and Native American residents live in poverty, as do 19 percent of Minnesotans identifying as Hispanic and nearly 12 percent of Asians.

Dangerous conditions

Heat waves can be dangerous and the current hot spell has led to a rise in hospitalizations in the Twin Cities. 

Regions Hospital in St. Paul treated 23 people for heat-related illness the weekend of June 4–6, according to a spokesperson. Allina Health treated 30 patients for heat-related illness that weekend at its three major metro hospitals: Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, and United Hospital in St. Paul.  

Dr. Philip Mumm, an emergency medicine physician at Abbott Northwestern, said the emergency room has been busy so far this summer, and that patient volumes typically rise during heat waves. 

Heat-related illnesses affect the elderly and very young the most. Old people living alone and without air conditioning are at the highest risk, he said, especially when temperatures remain high in the evening.

“Many people with asthma and other respiratory conditions will have illnesses worsen,” Mumm said. 

Shonette Micco, an injury prevention and community outreach specialist for Regions, said people should plan ahead for hot conditions. 

“We need to take the heat seriously,” she said. 

Staying hydrated and drinking plenty of fluids before getting thirsty is key to beating the heat, she said. Misting helps, too. People should try to perform activities like yard care and exercise in the early morning or evening, when the sun is less intense and temperatures are cooler, Micco said. 

If people feel overheated they should try to cool off by staying in shade or air conditioning, and drinking water or fluids with electrolytes like Gatorade, Mumm said. But if people become disoriented, dizzy, or begin to faint, they should be transported to an emergency room because “it is truly a medical emergency at that point,” he said. 

The hot, stagnant conditions means more concentrated ozone pollution in the air, which also exacerbates health issues. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued an air quality alert June 8 for areas of the Twin Cities metro extending northwest to St. Cloud. The state warned that high ozone levels can be dangerous for those with respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, young children, and people of all ages doing heavy physical activity outdoors.

Sun, heat, and little wind create conditions for increased nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that lead to ozone concentrations. 

The state encouraged Minnesotans to cut down on driving and postpone gas-powered equipment like lawn mowers to avoid contributing to pollution. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...