Extreme Wisconsin
Warmer, wetter, weirder weather ahead

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American robins arrive earlier in the spring now than they did when Katie Thomas and her wife Paula Manning first picked up their binoculars 30 years ago.

That the robin, traditionally a harbinger of spring, is scouting earlier for worms in southeastern Wisconsin may be a sunny side of climate change. But Thomas, who with Manning spends many Saturday mornings birding around Kenosha parks, is worried about the impact of global warming on other species.

“Habitat is changing. Migratory patterns are changing,” Thomas said. “My nonni winters in Fort Myers, Fla. A couple of years ago, she was seeing thousands of robins in the winter. This year she didn’t see any. What might we not see some day?”

Scientists for the National Audubon Society, studying 40 years of data collected from birdwatchers like Thomas and Manning, have concluded that climate change – specifically global warming – has led 60 percent of North America’s 305 bird species to shift their ranges northward.

Although it might not seem like it this spring, scientists in Wisconsin, many of them involved in the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, have concluded that the state’s climate is changing in ways that will impact weather, wildlife, habitat, industry, recreation, health and more. 

About six years ago, experts came together in WICCI, which was co-organized by UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, to investigate climate change and, in concert with environmental campaigns to conserve resources and reduce pollution, begin developing ways to adapt.

“Wisconsin is at the national forefront of understanding and forecasting climate change through the downscaling of global circulation models to the local level,” said Carolyn Rumery Betz, a program manager associated with WICCI and the Nelson Institute.

“The No. 1 goal is to take away the mystery of where we are vulnerable to climate change, to assess the impact of climate change and then to push the state to adjust and do damage control,” said John Young, director of the Wisconsin State Climatology Office.

Warmer, wetter, wilder

The scientists agree that Wisconsinites can expect the state to experience more heat, severe weather events, prolonged droughts, intense storms and heavy rains.

Recent years already have seen exceptionally weird weather. In 2008, south and central Wisconsin was drenched with 14 inches of rain in a two-week period that caused more than $34 million in damages, but in the northern part of the state, a drought left some piers high and dry. In 2012, there were record-breaking warm temperatures in March, then an April cold snap, a summer heat wave with temperatures over 100 degrees, a mild fall and then a snow in late November, before the ground froze in the north.

Now WICCI, in its first report on climate change, projects:

• Precipitation is likely to continue increasing overall.

• Statewide, the amount of precipitation that falls as rain rather than snow in the winter is likely to increase, and freezing rain is more likely to occur.

• Large storm events are likely to increase in frequency in the spring and fall.

• Wisconsin’s warming trend will continue and increase considerably in the decades ahead. By the middle of the century, the statewide annual average temperatures are likely to warm by 4-9 degrees.

• By mid-century, wintertime temperatures are likely to increase by 8 degrees.

• Summertime average temperatures are likely to rise 5-6 degrees.

• The number of summer days that exceed 90 degrees is projected to increase. By the end of the century, the state may see as many as 60 days over 90 degrees and more than 14 days over 100 degrees.

• Southern and western Wisconsin could see three-plus weeks of very hot days each year by mid-century.

• The number of winter nights below zero is expected to decrease about three weeks in northern Wisconsin and one week in southeastern Wisconsin, by mid-century.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, in its own analysis, concluded that Wisconsin’s winters could someday be more like Missouri’s winters are now.

These projections might sound bright for Wisconsinites struggling to thaw out from winter or for farmers who would welcome a longer growing season.

“Some people are very happy to have winters be less intense statistically,” Young said. 

But the consequences of climate change will be severe without mitigation and adaptation – and not just by the robin.

WICCI, in its analysis, finds that climate change will impact:

• The quality and quantity of water. Water levels may rise in some areas with heavier rainfall, but fall in others due to drought. Heavy rain may increase fertilizer runoff, resulting in algal blooms that harm wetlands and lakes.

• Natural habitats. Plant hardiness zones are shifting, pushing species’ ranges northward. Earlier springs disrupt the cycle for pollinators and plants. Some wildlife species, such as the American marten, spruce grouse, snowshoe hare and native brook trout, and some plant species, such as the black spruce, balsam fir and paper birch, may disappear from the state. 

• Health. Pollen production is increasing. Increased precipitation can mean more waterborne diseases. From the Chicago area, occurrences of ground-level ozone exceeding air quality standards are expected to increase from two days a summer to 17 days a summer by the end of the century. Heat waves – which kill more people each year in the United States than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and lightning combined – pose serious health threats, especially for older people. 

• Agriculture. Warming temperatures in the spring and fall could extend the growing season across the state. But increased temperatures in the summer could reduce crop yields. Every warming of 2 degrees could decrease corn yields by 13 percent and soybean yields by 16 percent.

‘Loss of winter’ brings huge impact

Climate change also will impact other industries, especially construction, tourism and recreation.

“Some people don’t like to shovel snow, so for them, increased temperatures can be a bonus,” noted Betz. “However, for those people who like winter sports like ice fishing and skiing, the increased temperatures aren’t positive. The loss of winter will have huge financial implications for our state.”

In addition to furthering the understanding of climate change, Wisconsin scientists have been working with community leaders around the state, as well as city and county officials.

“It is hugely important that we do this,” Young said. “We’ve got to have the entire continuum involved. Environmental problems are a concern of the whole community and, in America, people have been turning away from thinking as a community. That’s the opposite of what should be happening. We’ve got to have unity.”

About a dozen communities in the state have formed climate change task forces, including La Crosse, Green Bay, Superior and, most recently, Dane County.

“Images of parched farm fields, flooded homes, wind-damaged properties, and cars stranded in deep snow drifts are becoming too common to ignore the reality that super storms and other weather extremes are the new norm,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said, announcing the task force earlier this spring. 

The group will recommend within six months any changes or additional resources the county might need to be better prepared to cope with the changing climate.

“Think global, act local,” Galen McKinley, an associate professor in UW-Madison’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, observed as she praised the local efforts. “This is an enormous challenge, and no one action will address it in full. Everyone must take part.”

Adaptation and conservation

This is where the experts tend to talk about “adaptation.”

Consider WICCI’s projections for heat waves. “We need to make sure,” Betz said, “that vulnerable populations are taken care of. Lack of access to air conditioning can be fatal to large numbers of people in the summer, especially when hot weather is accompanied with high humidity.”

Consider the climate and agriculture. Betz said, “Our growing season may be lengthened, and if farmers can adapt with new crops it will be positive. For example, maybe we’ll be able to have a healthy peach tree crop in the state or grow vegetables that we don’t grow today. So, some things may be positive and others not so much.”

Adaptation in a community might also involve planting more shade trees or drought-tolerant trees for hotter summers. Or municipalities might upgrade their stormwater systems to build capacity by increasing the dimensions of run-off pipes.

“Some of these things are ‘no regrets’ strategies,” said Betz.

And, of course, along with adaptation comes the need for conservation.

“People are anxious to make a positive difference on the environment,” Betz said. “One of the most important things people can do is assess their own carbon footprints and see where they might change their behaviors. For example, they might discover that taking the bus only a few times a week can make a big difference. …Water consumption is another area where people can change their habits. Everyone can do something, and all these small actions add up.”

Young, for his part, said he tries to consume less.

Thomas and Manning also have made a commitment to shrinking their footprints. “It really is relatively easy to do and it turns out to be a healthier, more economical way to live,” Thomas said.

The Kenosha couple will be among the many taking action on Earth Day, the global holiday observed on and around April 22 with demonstrations, conferences, lectures, cleanup campaigns and outings. 

“We’re going to the Earth Day Celebration at the Gateway Technical College,” Thomas said. “There’s a plant sale and a compost giveaway.”

Afterward, the women may spend some time bird-watching – and listening for the “cheeriup” song of the robin.