Report assesses climate change impacts, adaptation strategies

Feb. 7, 2011

A statewide collaborative of scientists and diverse stakeholders is proposing a multitude of measures to help protect and enhance Wisconsin's natural resources, economic vitality, and public well-being as the state's climate becomes warmer and wetter.

Their report, "Wisconsin's Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation," was released today by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). It is available online here.

"This report is the first comprehensive survey of climate change impacts in Wisconsin, and it provides information that will help decision-makers begin to plan for the kinds of changes we're likely to see 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 WICCI's science council.

Public officials, resource managers, business owners, and farmers are among the many groups expected to draw upon the new report's recommendations as they anticipate and address the impacts of current and future climate change across the state.

"We need to think about what climate change could mean for our natural resources and actively plan to address the issue," says Jack Sullivan, director of science services at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Sullivan coordinates efforts within the agency to evaluate how a changing climate may alter its management responsibilities and how to minimize negative impacts.

UW-Madison scientists already have documented changes in Wisconsin's climate that have occurred over the past 60 years, including a 1.3 degree Fahrenheit increase in the annual average temperature — 2.5 degrees in winter — and more frequent occurrences of heavy rainfall.

Using sophisticated computer models, the scientists also have projected that Wisconsin's average temperature is likely to rise an additional 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and that more total precipitation and more intense storms are highly probable in many parts of the state.

Armed with this information, more than a dozen WICCI working groups assessed potential impacts on areas of concern ranging from fisheries, forests, and wildlife habitat to stormwater management, agriculture and human health. The new report details their conclusions. Among them:

Water resources

  • Rising winter temperatures will continue to shorten the duration of lake ice cover.
  • More frequent heavy rains will wash polluted runoff into lakes, triggering more algae blooms.

Natural habitats

  • Earlier onset of spring may alter relationships between plants and pollinators, affecting reproduction cycles.
  • Some wildlife, fish, and tree species now at the southern edge of their ranges in Wisconsin may move out of the state, while species more tolerant of warmer temperatures will expand.

Agriculture

  • A longer growing season may help boost agricultural production.
  • Hotter summers could reduce yields of crops such as corn and soybeans.

Coastal areas

  • Diminishing ice cover, changing water levels, and higher winds over the Great Lakes could increase shoreline erosion and risks to shoreline property.
  • Increased runoff and flooding could affect the biological integrity of coastal wetlands.

Public health

  • Summer heat waves may become more frequent and last longer.
  • Accumulations of smog and ground-level ozone could pose more frequent air-quality hazards.

Infrastructure

  • Roads, bridges, and urban areas will face greater risk of damage from intense storms.
  • More heavy rain events could overwhelm storm sewers.

Each of the WICCI working groups cites specific actions that decision-makers could take to reduce the negative consequences of climate change and capitalize on potential benefits. Many of these actions, according to the report, promise multiple payoffs regardless of how much climate change occurs.

For example, while more precise targeting of agricultural lands for the federal Conservation Reserve Program could help cushion coldwater streams that harbor native brook trout from rising temperatures, it also could reduce streambank erosion and preserve wetlands that absorb polluted runoff and protect water quality.

Similarly, besides providing better data for public natural resource managers, monitoring forest ecosystems more closely would help commercial timber producers anticipate changing conditions that favor some tree species over others and adjust their mixes of species accordingly.

The WICCI report "confirms our suspicions about the conditions we've been working with for several years," says Ned Zuelsdorff, a member of WICCI's advisory group and executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, which stages the largest, most prestigious cross-country ski marathon in North America each February between Cable and Hayward in northwestern Wisconsin.

The 54-kilometer "Birkie" main event, the shorter Kortelopet, and associated activities typically attract more than 11,000 skiers and 20,000 spectators, pumping millions of dollars annually into the local economy.

Weather and snow are always variable, says Zuelsdorff, who has directed the event for the past six years and skied it himself 17 times. But "there probably have been more instances in the last 15 years than the previous 15 years where the race had to be shortened, or other changes made, to deal with climate change. We have already made adjustments and will likely make additional adjustments."

The WICCI report calls for a precautionary approach against climate change impacts where full scientific certainty is lacking but there are threats of serious damage, explaining that "'better safe than sorry' strategies can be modified later if new information suggests that little or no harm will result from a climate impact."

The Nelson Institute and the DNR launched WICCI in 2007 to assess the potential impacts of climate change on Wisconsin's natural resources, industry, and human health. Since then, the initiative has expanded to include some 250 participants representing more than 70 state and federal agencies, UW System schools, tribal organizations, businesses, and nonprofit groups.

The new report is the first in what is expected to be a series to be issued by WICCI every four to five years. Future reports will delve further into potential impacts and adaption strategies based on the latest scientific assessments of climate change in the state.

Partial funding for the report was provided by Wisconsin's Focus on Energy and the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment.