After a hiatus, the the Red Cedar Watershed conference was convened once again at UW-Stout. As in past years, the conference had a plethora of outstanding speakers and presentations. The focus of this years conference was how climate change is and will effect the Red Cedar Watershed. It was logical that a climate scientist should make the opening presentation and detail how the climate has changed in Wisconsin over the decades and how it will change in the future. Dr Jim Boulter is a Professor of Chemistry, Public Health and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Dr Boulter detailed how Wisconsin’s climate has changed since 1950. Overall, the average temperature in Wisconsin has warmed by 3° since 1950.

 

 

Source: Wisconsin’s Changing Climate 2021 Assessment Report WICCI

And, lucky for us??, the most extreme climate changes are occurring in Northwest Wisconsin. Precipitation is also increasing throughout the state. Southern Wisconsin is getting a lot more precipitation in the spring and summer, and over all precipitation in the state has increased by about 5 inches per year since 1950. Overall, there has been a 20% increase in winter precipitation in the state. Because of the warmer temps some of that increase has been in the form of rain, but not always.

The winter of 2019 in Western Wisconsin experienced massive snow falls that started in late January and ended in May. The snow got so deep that I could not throw it over the bank with my shovel and had to borrow my neighbor’s snowblower to get the job done. I fixed that problem by buying a snowblower the following fall. This year we experienced many storms that had both rain and snow. Hence the horrible icy conditions that made driving and walking hazardous most of the winter. My dog even had trouble staying upright walking around the block this past winter.

Source: Wisconsin’s Changing Climate 2021 Assessment Report WICCI

The warming trend will mean less snow cover in the winter in the long run. The warming night time temperatures will really impact the depth of the snow pack depth. I’ve observed the effect warm nighttime temps have on snow pack depth in two notable ways. I am a COCORAHS [https://www.cocorahs.org/ [Station WI-DN-15]] observer and as such have made nearly daily snow pack  and precipitation observations since March of 2019. While warm days and cold nights will lower the snow pack some, warm days and warm nights causes a significantly greater reduction in the snow pack. The other notable time I experienced how warm overnight temps impacted the snow pack depth occurred on a late winter camping trip in the Rainbow Lake Wilderness Area. The trip began as a normal winter trip with lots of snow to haul my gear in on a wood toboggan. The second day of the trip the temps went above freezing which made snowshoeing a bit annoying but OK. I think the temps actually got even warmer over night and when I emerged from my sleeping bag the next day, the snow cover was mostly gone. I had to make multiple trips to pack my gear and the toboggan out of the wilderness.

The long term impacts of reduced snow pack could be multi fold. Snow cover, frost depth, and cold help to determine which plants, trees, insects and critters reside in Wisconsin. Boreal forest trees like birch and some pine are expected to be pushed out of our region and to only survive in extreme northern Minnesota and maybe Wisconsin. and possibly only in northern Minnesota. Sugar maples will have to drift northward out of the driftless area. Maple syrup season will begin earlier in the year than it does currently. Also sugar content of the sap may drop by as much as 30%. [https://maple.extension.wisc.edu/2022/07/29/maple-syrup-and-climate-change/] Hardwoods like oak, hickory and walnut will expand their range. [https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/climatechange/impacts]

Dr Boulter explained that there are three types of gases that are causing the increase in global temperatures: carbon, methane and nitrous oxide. Carbon is the most well known of the greenhouse gases, but the impact of methane and nitrous oxide is much stronger with smaller quantities. The EPA states that methane traps 27 to 30 times more heat than carbon, and that nitrous oxide traps 273 times more heat [https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials] While carbon is the most plentiful greenhouse gas, reducing the level of methane and nitrous oxide in the short term will yield a greater reduction in climate changes. Both nitrous oxide and methane have a much shorter life span in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide floats around for about 100 years and methane has a life span of about 10 years.

Source: Wisconsin’s Changing Climate 2021 Assessment Report WICCI

Climate change is like a pot of water on the stove. With a little heat nothing much changes. With a bit more heat a gentle simmer can be achieved. With a lot of heat, the pot will boil and even boil over. The boiling over with climate change translates into more extreme weather events. Hence, there will be many more days when the temperature extreme of over 90 degrees occur with Southwest Wisconsin potentially having over 45 days of 90 plus temps per year. West Central Wisconsin will experience between 20 and 35 days of 90 plus days. Extreme rain fall events of 2 or more inches of rain will also increase with resulting increase in flooding. Westcentral Wisconsin could experience 10 or more rain events of 2 or more inches of rain per decade by 2050. The rains will be life threatening as well as very expensive because it will be necessary to constantly repair the damage caused by the floods. Rain will also occur less frequently so drought will happen in between the rain storms.

How will the critters that live in Wisconsin be impacted by climate change? Interestingly the white tailed deer population is expected to increase as more deer will survive the winter. (Sorry hosta growers.) One question that I find interesting is; Will the size of the individual deer shrink since large body size is an adaption to living in a cold climate? I have hunted in both Northwest Arkansas and Southeast Ohio. Both places have much warmer and less snowy winter and the deer are much smaller. They are about the size of a large German Shepard with antlers and longer legs. Additionally, there are more critters in the woods in these two places; some are fun some are not. Armadillos are cool to watch as they scurry and jump around the landscape. Some, like the nine species of poisonous snakes in Arkansas, are not much fun. When hunting in Arkansas, one keeps one eye out for game and one eye looking out for the copperheads and eastern diamondbacks that inhabit the Ozarks.

Other animals that may be negatively impacted by climate change include the common loon, snowshoe hares, and ruffed grouse.

Climate change will make growing food more difficult both as a gardener and as a farmer. Heavier rains means more soil erosion. More drought will make it harder to grow crops and extended drought will lower water tables so irrigation to overcome the drought may not be possible. More spring rains will make it difficult to plant crops. Winters with diminished snow cover and extreme cold temperatures will lead to winter kill crops like alfalfa and rye. Farmers and gardeners will have to adopt their farming and gardening methods to fit the new realities of climate.

So what can be done about climate change through mitigation, adaptation, and resilience? Fortunately, there are multiple options for each of the three ways to lessen the effects of climate change. And many of the mitigation, adaptation, and resilience actions are currently available to us. They just need to be implemented, which requires the will necessary to address the problems. There in lies the heart of the matter. Do we have the will necessary to solve the problem?

A future blog post will explore the actions that can lead to mitigation, adaptation, and resilience to lessen the impact of climate change.

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