What Will Wisconsin’s Climate Look Like in 50 Years?

When I go for a walk in the woods here today – through a forest of white pine, hemlock, and birch, dotted with lakes and lush bogs – it’s hard to imagine that climate change will bring drastic alteration to this landscape within my lifetime. However, a piece of research that came out this past summer hopes to help us with our lack of imagination by finding contemporary analogues for Wisconsin’s climatic future. The paper, from a UW-Madison team led by Samuel Veloz and Jack Williams, is titled “Identifying climatic analogues for Wisconsin under 21st-century climate-change scenarios,” and you can read the abstract here.

detail from figure 3, showing the locations of late 20th-century analogs for Wisconsin’s future climate

Essentially, what they did was take what climate change models say will happen to Wisconsin’s temperature and precipitation in the next fifty to one hundred years and determine what locations in the U.S. have climates most like that right now. By the mid-21st century, northern Wisconsin, where I live, should be similar to how Milwaukee is now. That may not sound like a huge shift, but if you’ve ever driven from here on the Michigan border down the length of the state, you know that a pretty dramatic change occurs when you leave the North Woods. Here we’re on the edge of the great boreal forest ecosystem of the north, but down there it’s much more typical pastoral Midwestern scenery – the land of the dairy farms that give Wisconsin its reputation for cheese.

These analogues are useful in several ways. For one thing, they make the idea of climate change seem much more concrete; just reading statistics about projected changes in temperature and precipitation doesn’t necessarily help non-scientists get a mental picture of what’s coming. The authors of the research also point out that this could be useful to farmers, city planners, etc. in trying to anticipate and prepare for future changes. The coolest bit is that they created an online tool that you can use to play with these models yourself to figure out where your particular patch of Wisconsin is headed (yes, only Wisconsin, sorry) – check it out at How Is Wisconsin’s Climate Changing?

Even though this sort of thing makes me sad, it’s also fascinating. What do you think, fellow North Woods folks?

Samuel Veloz, John W. Williams, David Lorenz, Michael Notaro, Steve Vavrus, & Daniel J. Vimont (2012). Identifying climatic analogues for Wisconsin under 21st-century climate-change scenarios Climatic Change, 112 (3-4), 1037-1058 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0261-z

2 thoughts on “What Will Wisconsin’s Climate Look Like in 50 Years?”

  1. This sort of thing makes me beyond sad. In my younger years, I fell in love with the outdoors and with wilderness places believing them to be timeless and eternal. Now I can’t hike in the mountains or wander the beaches or run rivers without asking the same question: what, if anything, will endure? Hopefully more than I fear will be the case.

    Every time I hear someone assess the future impacts of climate change in terms of dollars-and-cents or percentage of GDP or some other obscenely narrow-minded measure, I just want to scream.

  2. On the one hand, the world is always in flux. Transitions and transformations are the name of the evolutionary game, but these have traditionally been so slow, by human standards, that we have not noticed them unless we start looking for them. Pulling up cores of pollen from bogs, for instance, to chart types of flora through time. Our individual lives are too fleeting in Earth time, but — now my other hand drops — suddenly, we have profoundly effected the globe itself. It’s remarkable, really, that in 200 years or so, we’ve put certain processes into overdrive, cranked up feedback mechanisms we didn’t know about when we started burning the dead (for what is the consumption of carbon fuels but the burning of the ancient dead?), and now have set them into overdrive. The radicalness of the changes we are forcing now will only be understood by people in the future, looking back.

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