Everything Is Changing and Everything Is Connected

Did anyone notice that I missed posting on Monday as usual? I was in Madison, at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ annual Earth Day Conference (yes, Earth Day is April 22, they were a week early). I got to see talks by Jane Goodall and Céline Cousteau, among others, as well as attend a really great panel on how species and ecosystems might respond to climate change. My favorite aspect of the conference was that it wasn’t just academics and environmental professionals there – attendees included lots of families, teenagers (including past students of mine), and other members of the public, interacting first-hand with scientists and activists. For someone like me who does work in this field, where it’s easy to get caught up in the stress and hustle of everyday tasks, events like this are an important way to get re-inspired and remember why I’ve chosen what can feel some days like a pretty thankless career path.

Then Monday night we made the four-hour drive back from Madison, where it’s chilly but at least there’s no snow on the ground, to Land O’ Lakes, where it still looks about like it did in January. A few weeks ago blogger and prairie ecologist Chris Helzer posted a great explainer on how this year’s late spring and last year’s early spring are both connected to global climate change. If I understand correctly, the idea is that the northern hemisphere’s air and water currents, including the Jet Stream, are ultimately driven by the temperature difference between cold Arctic waters and warmer temperate waters. As the Arctic warms, there’s less of a difference, and everything becomes a bit less stable, so that the Jet Stream wanders around a lot more than it used to. Last year it made a big northward loop, and most of the U.S. was on its southern side, getting warm southern air. This year it’s wandering to the south and the opposite is happening.

At the climate change panel at the conference, they showed us this graphic, and it made a big impression on me.

Click to view it full size so you can read the labels – the left half show changes in human activity over the past couple centuries, and the right half shows corresponding changes in the global environment, all on the same timescale. (Some of the data plotted might surprise you, like the amount of international tourism, or the number of McDonald’s restaurants.) Everything is connected, and everything is changing. Whatever happens, my generation is living through an important period in human history.

Steffen W et al. (2004). Global Change and the Earth System: a Planet under Pressure. The IGBP book series. Springer (Berlin, Germany), 336 p.

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