A historic spring blizzard left two feet of snow on the ground in parts of Wisconsin five years ago, record breaking hot temperatures in the upper 80s sweltered the state this April and smoke from raging wildfires hundreds of miles away caused poor air conditions across the region this summer.
According to experts, these extreme weather events are not just anomalies, but clear signs that the climate is changing in Wisconsin, in the United States and around the globe right before our very eyes.
“This is a concern because society has structured itself around a predictable, stable climate,” said Steve Vavrus, the Wisconsin state climatologist and a senior scientist for the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Currently, we don’t have that, and we humans are primarily responsible. Even though there’s been natural climate changes over the years, what’s happened recently can only be explained through artificial interference and climate pollution that we humans have created.”
Simply put, the genesis of climate change can be traced back to the beginning of the industrial period generations ago. Since then, humans have been emitting various pollutants — including greenhouse gases — into the air through manufacturing, transportation and agriculture.
“Those greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and that is warming our climate and increasing the temperature,” said Chelsea Chandler, director of the climate, energy & air program at Clean Wisconsin.
According to a 2023 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, global surface temperature has risen 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit from the last half of the 19th century to the last decade.
“Here in Wisconsin, the temperature is already warming, and we expect that trend to continue. And we also expect it to get wetter in Wisconsin, so that means more weather events or flooding,” Chandler said, adding with the temperature change comes shifting hardiness zones for growing crops and changes in where insects live. “We expect to see more heat waves as well.”
Here in Wisconsin, temperatures have warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. The state has also experienced 17 percent more precipitation since 1950, according to a report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.
The impacts are vast for the state. The warmer temperatures are changing conditions for cold-weather sports, tourism and wildlife in northern Wisconsin and fluctuating water levels and eroding bluffs that endanger homes and roads in the Great Lakes area.
In Southern Wisconsin, major spikes in precipitation are impacting roads, bridges and stormwater infrastructure that lack the capacity to deal with the increased water flows, contributing to damaging flooding and increasing health risks. To the west, the increased amount of water flowing into the Mississippi River has impacted transportation, wildlife and has damaged infrastructure and agricultural supplies, the report said.
“Climate change affects us in so many different ways. It affects our health, it affects our economy, our way of life, our culture,” Vavrus said. “Flooding has a direct effect on our infrastructure. It can affect bridges. It can knock out dams, can tear up pavement and do all sorts of damage. We can’t just sequester ourselves and think that we’re safe from it.”
The weather’s various extremes could be seen across the state this summer. Although Wisconsin over the long term has become wetter, the state saw a drought over the past several months which ultimately could be very expensive for farmers, Vavrus said.
“It’s a dollars and cents issue,” Vavrus said. “Like anything, too much or too little is not a good thing. Predictability is so important. We want to be able to plan our economy, plan our planting times, plan our choices of stormwater culvert sizes, according to some sort of historical norms. But unfortunately, those historical norms are not providing the guidance that’s needed at the moment.”
If no action is taken, global temperatures will rise by as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to the Nature Conservancy, which notes that this pace of warming would cause catastrophic ice sheet melting, leading to sea level rise and flooding of coastal cities.
Climate change also has a direct effect on lives. Within the next three decades, climate change could potentially cause 250,000 deaths and directly cause $4 billion in health costs annually by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.
Individuals have several ways to help combat human-caused climate change. The first is to vote, as elections have consequences, according to Vavrus. Secondly, reduce food waste, which recent research shows contributes to climate change, he said.
“Reducing food waste, changing our diet to become less carbon– intensive and cutting back on certain kinds of meat that are big carbon producers; these can have a disproportionate impact on our individual carbon footprints as well as our societal footprints,” Vavrus said.
People can also transition to more efficient and cleaner appliances in their homes and drive more climate-friendly cars, Chandler said. She also said to know your farmer.
“The closer you can get to understanding your foods and support farmers that are really truly growing with regenerative practices that are building up the soil and keeping more carbon in the ground where it does good and out of the air where it’s wreaking havoc, that’s going to be ideal,” Chandler said.
The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle focused on climate change for the season of the world’s birthday, Rosh Hashanah. This article is part of that series for 2023/5784.