Unfamiliar Ground: Bracing for Climate Impacts in the American Midwest

Think of a Minnesota with almost no ice fishing. A Missouri that is as hot and dry as Texas. River and lake communities where catastrophic flooding happens almost every year, rather than every few generations.

This, scientists warn, is the future of the Midwest if emissions continue at a high rate, threatening the very core of the region’s identity.

With extreme heat waves and flooding increasingly making that future feel more real, city leaders have started looking for ways to adapt.

In a joint project organized by InsideClimate News, reporters across the Midwest are exploring how communities are responding to climate change. Read their stories below, including an overview of the challenges and some solutions from Rochester, Minnesota (InsideClimate News); stories of adaptation planning after disaster in Goshen, Indiana (Indiana Environmental Reporter); climate concerns in Michigan’s cool Upper Peninsula (Bridge Magazine), including mining pollution washed up by heavy rainfall (Bridge Magazine); questions of whether to retreat from flood risk in Freeport, Illinois (Better Government Association); and whether infrastructure, including highways and power lines, can handle climate change in Missouri (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).


Flood walls protect Rochester, Minnesota. Credit: Michael Hicks/CC-BY-2.0
Flood walls protect Rochester, Minnesota. Credit: Michael Hicks/CC-BY-2.0

As Climate Change Threatens Midwest’s Cultural Identity, Cities Test Ways to Adapt

By Dan Gearino, InsideClimate News

From her office window, Rochester, Minnesota, Mayor Kim Norton has a clear view of how close the Zumbro River is to overflowing downtown flood walls. The city, home to Mayo Clinic, has an enviable level of flood protection, installed after the devastating flood of 1978, but the walls were barely high enough to handle high waters last year. Norton has put climate change at the forefront of her agenda.



Downtown Goshen. Credit: Beth Edwards/Indiana Environment Reporter
In Goshen, the mayor discusses the benefits of climate projects for the community, rather than the causes of climate change. Credit: Beth Edwards/Indiana Environment Reporter

Galvanized by Devastating Floods, an Indiana Mayor Seeks a Sustainable Path

By Beth Edwards, Indiana Environmental Reporter

The mayor of Goshen, Indiana, wants to steer this small city to be better prepared for climate change following severe floods last year. He has found the key is to talk about the projects in terms of their benefits for the community, rather than court the divisiveness that comes with talking about the causes of climate change.



Marquette, Michigan. Credit: Jim Malewitz/Bridge Magazine
Even Michigan’s cool Upper Peninsula communities are facing the effects of climate change. Credit: Jim Malewitz/Bridge Magazine

Marquette Looks Appealing in a Warming World, But Has its Own Climate Concerns

By Jim Malewitz, Bridge Magazine

The largest city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would seem to be a prime destination for people trying to avoid the impacts of climate change. But leaders in the city and region are confronting an array of problems related to warming, such as intensifying rains and an increase in disease-carrying pests.



Road damage. Credit: Christopher Guibert, Courtesy of the Keweenaw Resiliency Group
Climate change is creating new vulnerabilities for old mines. Credit: Christopher Guibert, Courtesy of the Keweenaw Resiliency Group

Old Mines Plus Heavy Rains Mean Disaster for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

By Jim Malewitz, Bridge Magazine

Climate change is contributing to heavy rains that strain a drainage system left over from long-closed mines. The result is an unpredictable and dangerous situation that community leaders are trying to fix. Meanwhile, residents know that the next heavy rain could be devastating.



Dealing with flooding in Freeport, Illinois. Credit: Brett Chase/Better Government Association
Flooding in Freeport, Illinois, has left resident asking when it’s time to stop rebuilding and give up. Credit: Brett Chase/Better Government Association

Amid Frequent Flooding, an Illinois City Must Decide Whether to Rebuild

By Brett Chase, Better Government Association

The Pecatonica River has flooded seven times in the past three years, upending the lives of many of the poorest residents of Freeport, Illinois. Leaders here and in many places are now asking whether it makes sense to keep rebuilding in flood-prone areas and how to pay to relocate the people affected.



Missouri power lines. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Power lines can be stressed by extreme heat, and storms can create damage and fire risks. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Pavement to Power Lines, Is Missouri’s Infrastructure Ready for a Warming World?

By Bryce Gray, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Extreme heat and flooding are putting stress on Missouri’s roads, bridges and electricity grid. A changing climate is ramping up the pressure on infrastructure that is often has already aged past its intended lifespan. The result is a growing chance of failures, such as the heat-induced buckling of roads.



Learn more about the National Environment Reporting Network and read the network’s spring project: Middle America’s Low-Hanging Carbon: The Search for Greenhouse Gas Cuts from the Grid, Agriculture and Transportation