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Earth Day 2013

Wisconsin’s climate is changing before our eyes

Apr. 16, 2013
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Milwaukeeans have been shivering and wet this past week, so it’s easy to believe that our soggy, cold April means that global warming or climate change isn’t a serious threat.

But unfortunately it is.

This past week’s heavy rains aren’t necessarily caused by global warming, but they do fit the long-term climate trends Wisconsin is experiencing.

“Weather is always going to be variable,” said Matt Howard, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Sustainability. “But when you’ve got an intense storm or an intense rain or an intense drought that certainly fits the pattern of the long-term trend. We’re seeing the evidence play out in the past four or five years in a number of very intense storms.”

And despite our current cool temperatures, Wisconsin is actually going through a long-term warming trend. In 2012, Wisconsin broke more high-temperature records than any other state in the country, according to data from the National Climatic Data Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The new high-temperature records were hotter by an average of a whopping 4.4 degrees.

The scientists are telling us that we need to get used to more extreme rainstorms and more broken records because Wisconsin’s climate is changing—and the changes will become more intense in our lifetimes, with potentially deadly results if we don’t act now.

The first step is to stop producing such a high volume of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses through our consumption of fossil fuels, said Carolyn Betz, program manager for the Madison-based Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. That won’t prevent the long-term changes that are already underway, but it can mitigate climate change’s negative impacts on our health and environment.

“Unfortunately, climate change is one of those things that is long term,” Betz said.


Less Snow and More Extreme Heat by 2050

Researchers at the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a project of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, have been studying the state’s changing climate and the impact of those changes on state residents, our natural resources and our “built environment.”

Looking backwards, the WICCI researchers documented that Wisconsin has gotten wetter and warmer since 1950. Winter and summer temperatures are now higher, especially at night, while autumns have stayed the same or cooled in some regions of the state.

Wisconsin is wetter, too. Average annual precipitation has increased about 15% between 1950 and 2006, the WICCI researchers found, although some regions have experienced drought while other parts of the state have experienced heavy flooding resulting from more frequent intense rainstorms.

Those long-term trends will continue but be accelerated, WICCI experts predicted in their comprehensive report on Wisconsin’s climate, and we’ll see those changes in our lifetime.

By the middle of the century, Wisconsin’s annual temperatures will increase by 6 to 7 degrees overall. In less than two decades, Wisconsin’s summers will look like today’s summers in Illinois. By the end of the century, Wisconsin’s winters will be like Iowa’s today and our summers will feel like those in current-day Arkansas.

We’ll see the biggest changes during wintertime. By 2050, Wisconsin winters will be 4 to 9 degrees warmer, four weeks shorter and have fewer sub-zero nights. Snowfall will decrease by 14 inches per year. WICCI’s report states that the expected rate of wintertime warming is about four times greater than what Wisconsin has experienced since 1950. Northern Wisconsinites will see the most intense changes and threats to their natural resources and lifestyle.

“That’s going to be one of our most significant impacts, the loss of the winter recreation season,” Betz said.

Temperature change in summertime won’t be as significant by mid-century, but very hot days will increase, especially in the southern part of the state. Currently, southern Wisconsin has about 12 days per year during which high temperatures exceed 90 degrees. But by 2050, we’ll have about 25 of those very hot days per year—more than three weeks of sweltering heat per year.

Wisconsin will be wetter, too, at least in the southern part of the state. While we’ll have less snow, we’ll get more rain during spring, autumn and winter. Heavy springtime rainstorms will become more frequent and intense, and flooding or sewer overflows may result.


High Heat Can Be Deadly

The prospect of milder winters and less snow may seem attractive to some, especially while spring seems too reluctant to emerge this year. But the consequences of long-term climate change are huge, according to WICCI’s findings.

UW-Madison researcher Richard Keller discovered that heat waves are the deadliest type of weather—deadlier than flash floods, hurricanes or tornadoes, in fact. High daytime heat with little relief at night is especially hard on the state’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income and elderly Milwaukeeans who may not live in air-conditioned housing.

Increased usage of air conditioning will also place stress on our electrical grid, which is overwhelmingly powered by coal-burning power plants. Although that will alleviate the heat, the uptick in electricity usage could lead to more ground-level ozone, potentially worsening respiratory illnesses like asthma. Again, the problem is acute in Milwaukee, which has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country.

Wisconsin’s natural environment will be affected as well. Native plants may no longer grow in their current locales and wild animals will likely migrate north. Some birds, such as Canada geese, might stay in Wisconsin instead of migrating south for the winter. The higher temperatures will cause more algae blooms in lakes and disrupt the natural habitat of fish and other aquatic life.

Wisconsin’s agriculture industry will also be affected in several ways, Betz said. The growing season will be longer, but as we saw with last year’s apple crop, an extended growing season doesn’t guarantee a bumper crop if the timing of rain and heat aren’t in sync. The soil will likely be drier and at more risk of flooding; farmers will have to adapt, possibly by introducing plants that had never thrived in Wisconsin. Crops that rely on water—cranberries, for example—may be harmed and cows’ stress during hot weather will put them at risk and lead to diminished milk production and a struggling dairy industry.

We’ll also have to address our built infrastructure. Milwaukee has had its share of historic rainstorms in just the past few years, resulting in damaged homes, sewer overflows and health scares. WICCI’s Milwaukee Working Group recommended more “green infrastructure” to reduce stormwater overflows, reduce the city’s heat island effect and increase the longevity of roadways, sewers and buildings.

                                                      You Can Prevent Flooding


The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and the city of Milwaukee have intensified their efforts to reduce flooding and sewage overflows by adding more green infrastructure to our area’s “built environment.” But they can’t do it alone.

“It’s really going to take everyone working together and changing the way that we think about using the land,” said Karen Sands, manager of sustainability for MMSD. “Instead of sending stormwater off our land and treating it as a nuisance, green infrastructure encourages us to hold it where it falls and treat it as a resource.”

MMSD’s latest wastewater permit requires the agency to create at least 1 million gallons of water-retaining green storage capacity for each of the five years of its permit—the first permit of its kind nationally. That green infrastructure could include purchasing green space, upgrading sewer pipes, planting roof gardens and encouraging the use of rain barrels.

The city is also incorporating green infrastructure to local roadways as part of its Green Streets program. The city was awarded a $60,000 Coastal Management grant to enable it to incorporate green elements into its street reconstruction. Raised median beds with rain gardens, tree trenches, and parking lanes with porous pavement are used to reduce stormwater runoff and reduce pollution, said Erick Shambarger, deputy director of the city’s Office of Environmental Sustainability. The city has used green design elements in its upgrades of West Grange Avenue between 19th Street and 27th Street, North 27th Street between West Capitol Drive and West Roosevelt Drive, and elsewhere.

But individuals can help to reduce the risk of flooding and polluted runoff, too, just by making a few small changes to their homes, yards or habits:

  • Install a rain barrel
  • Plant a rain garden where water is discharged during storms
  • Direct downspouts into a rain barrel, the yard or the garden instead of into the sewer system
  • Use porous pavers to reduce hard surfaces on your property
  • Don’t run the dishwasher or washing machine during rainstorms
  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and don’t spray them before it rains
  • Slope ground away from the house so water can run off into the yard
  • Clear sewer grates of debris
  • Don’t blow leaves or grass into the street
  • Pick up pet waste

                                        Will Solar and Wind Power Knock Out Utilities?


It may seem far-fetched right now, but renewable energy options have the power to knock out traditional fossil fuel-based utilities’ monopolies.

That “dire prediction” was made in January by the trade group Edison Electric Institute as it looked at the long-term impacts of increased use of renewables, including solar and small wind turbines owned by individuals and businesses, as well as efficiency measures. The institute found that the traditional coal-based utilities’ business model will be threatened as the cost of going solar or using renewables decreases and more customers opt out of the big utilities’ grid. That will cause the utilities to raise their rates on their dwindling customer base, causing even more users to cut ties and generate their own power. At the same time, investors will see solar, wind and other renewable options—including green energy-powered batteries—become better bets, leaving utilities without a steady supply of easy capital when they need to make long-term upgrades to their systems. The report likened the renewables’ threat to the utilities to FedEx’s weakening of the U.S. Postal Service’s market dominance. The utilities’ failure to adapt will be their own demise, the institute warned.

“It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence,” wrote David Roberts in his analysis of the report at grist.org.

The threat is already being seen in Germany, where 22% of electricity production comes from renewables—and the vast amount of that energy is not coming from the four largest utility companies, according to a March Reuters report, but from consumers, farmers and niche companies. Individuals own 40% of the renewables capacity, while the utilities own only 7%. That consumer independence is making a dent in the customer base of the traditional utilities. In Bavaria, for example, 8.5% of the electricity consumers are actually electricity producers through their own solar energy systems.

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey told the Shepherd he doesn't see solar as a threat in our area. But Charlie Higley, executive director at Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, said that utilities cannot take their monopolies for granted, especially in sunny areas of the country where consumers can easily go solar. While Higley applauded the development of clean energy sources, he also warned about the long-term consequences for utilities and customers who will continue to rely on the fossil fuel-powered grid.

“As a consumer group, we appreciate the development of solar electric [power],” Higley said. “We see that as potentially being really good for consumers. But the threat is that this will undermine the investments made by our utilities and that our rates will increase to cover the investments in plants that may not be needed in the future.”

Coal-based utilities may not be worried about their customers pulling the plug just yet. But they should be concerned as more consumers see the financial and environmental benefits of independently generating their own clean power.



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