Wisconsin’s changing weather challenges communities

Wisconsin’s changing weather challenges communities

Contact: David S. Liebl, 608-265-2360, david.liebl@ces.uwex.edu or Elaine Andrews, 608-262-0142, eandrews@wisc.edu

Madison, Wis.–Ask a roomful of Wisconsinites if they think the climate has changed during their lifetimes and the response is often a unanimous yes. While most people remember stories from their parents and grandparents about how bad–or good–the weather used to be, UW-Madison scientists have documented the changes in Wisconsin’s climate that have occurred over the past 60 years. These include a 1.3-degree-Fahrenheit increase in the annual average temperature (2.5 degrees in the winter); a four-week increase in the growing season in northwest Wisconsin; and more frequent heavy rainfall.

A new report by the scientists titled “Wisconsin’s Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation” is the first comprehensive survey of climate impacts in Wisconsin. The study provides information that will help decision-makers begin to plan for the kinds of changes likely to occur in the years ahead, says Lewis Gilbert, associate director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and member of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI).

The WICCI report cites specific actions that decision-makers can take to both reduce risk and take advantage of the opportunities presented by our changing climate. Many of these actions promise benefits regardless of how much change occurs. Public officials, resource managers, business owners, and farmers are among the many groups expected to draw upon the new report’s recommendations as they respond to and anticipate the impacts of current and future climate change across the state.

“The WICCI report is significant for what it tells us about recent changes in Wisconsin’s climate,” says David Liebl, a Cooperative Extension statewide stormwater specialist with the Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center. “For example, many communities have designed stormwater infrastructure to manage rainfall amounts typical of drier decades. Recent changes in rainfall patterns have raised concerns about community preparedness for flooding, and we are working to help these communities adapt to these new conditions.”

Recently Liebl and UW-Extension hydrogeologist Madeline Gotkowitz teamed with Calumet County extension agent Mary Kohrell to evaluate surface and groundwater flooding risk in that county. They found numerous opportunities to improve runoff management, and prevent the siting of new development in flood-prone areas. Liebl noted that the City of Chilton has already taken steps in anticipation of increased future rainfall.

With an eye to the future, the authors of the WICCI report have made projections of what Wisconsin’s temperature and precipitation are likely to be by mid-century. “Using the information from the study, more than a dozen working groups have assessed potential climate impacts on areas of concern ranging from fisheries, forests, and wildlife habitat to stormwater management, agriculture and human health,” adds Liebl.

Here are some of the potential impacts of continued changes in Wisconsin’s climate that WICCI working groups have identified:

Agriculture

—While longer growing seasons may help boost agricultural production, hotter summers could reduce yields of crops such as corn and soybeans.

–Warmer winters and longer growing seasons will also provide good conditions for pests and disease.

Public health and safety

–Summer heat waves will become more frequent and last longer.

–Accumulations of smog and ground-level ozone could pose more frequent air-quality hazards.

–Roads, bridges, and urban areas will face greater risk of damage from intense storms, with more heavy rain events overwhelming storm drains and sanitary sewers.

–Diminishing ice cover, changing water levels, and higher winds over the Great Lakes could increase shoreline erosion and risks to shoreline property.

Water resources

–Rising winter temperatures will continue to shorten the average duration of lake ice cover.

–More frequent heavy rains will wash polluted runoff into lakes, triggering more algae blooms and other water quality concerns, and affect the biological integrity of wetlands.

Wildlife

–Earlier onset of spring will alter relationships between plants and pollinators, affecting reproduction cycles.

–Some wildlife, fish, and tree species now at the edge of their biological ranges in Wisconsin may move out of the state, while species more tolerant of warmer temperatures will expand.

The February 2011 report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts is available online at www.wicci.wisc.edu

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