Climate Change in Wisconsin since the 2011 Report

Steve Vavrus is a climate scientist at UW-Madison and co-director of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

How is climate changing in Wisconsin?

It’s getting warmer and wetter. Those are the operative words and we are seeing a clear warming trend and wetter conditions over the last several decades in every season and every part of the state. That’s exactly what we are expecting to see more of in the future.

How will this update report be different from the 2011 report?

At least in a couple of ways. One is that it’s 10 more years of information both in terms of climate change and adaptation strategies and so forth. Second is in format. This will be more story-based, using lot more narratives to make the point and be more accessible. We are using a “knowledge pyramid” structure so that we provide more general information up front in the report and then lower down in the pyramid, more foundational material would be situated on the working group website. Readers who want more information can drill down and get the information there.

Another big change from 2011 is the attention given to equity and climate justice in this report, a change that is in keeping with the racial reckoning we have had in the country of late. We know that people have suffered from climate change for a long time, but what’s not always articulated is that it affects people differently and it tends to disproportionately affect people who either contributed less to the problem or are less able to cope with the impacts. While everyone will be affected by climate change and no one will come out unscathed, some people have a lot more ability for resilience to deal with it than others.

What have we learned since the last report in terms of climate?

We have had several record-breaking globally warm years since 2011. It’s to the point where just about every year is in the top five for warmness records. That’s something that’s changed since 2011. Closer to home, the 2010s were Wisconsin’s wettest decades on record, which goes back to the 1890s. The year 2019 was the wettest year on record by a lot. It is really remarkable how wet the climate has become, including extreme weather events, record floods and so forth.

While Wisconsin is feeling the impacts of climate change, there is also a greater realization that action needs to be taken to mitigate its effects. Photo credit: Kevin Sink

It was also nearly the warmest decade on record, just shy of the record from the previous decade. The two warmest decades have been since the 2000s in Wisconsin and the last decade has been by far the wettest decade.

What would you want decision-makers to know?

Climate change is here and now, it’s having very practical impacts in terms of health, economy, wildlife, and many other ways. It also affects human comfort. People may notice, for example, that we are having more muggy nights and definitely more rainy days and flooding events. There are larger scale impacts too, with very important changes for agriculture, tourism and so on that affect the bottom line in Wisconsin.

If people take action, could we stop the warming?

Climate change is like a runaway train right now and you can’t stop it instantly. You first have to slow it down, bring it to a halt, and eventually move it backwards. We are a long way from reaching that point. The first step is to slow it down. Wisconsin is only one state in one country. There’s only so much we can do in terms of mitigating the problem but there is a lot we can do in terms of adapting to the climate. That is WICCI’s focus, how to adapt to a warmer, wetter climate with more extreme events. We identify things we can do to protect ourselves and our economy.

In terms of the individual level, it’s really all hands on deck for such a huge problem. There are things individuals can do in terms of weather and climate proofing their homes and properties to handle heavy rainfall. There is also collective action we can take on the state level, surrounding climate policy, and the national level, including tax incentives to promote clean energy. Some of these things are being done or have been proposed at a national and international level, but we need more of that to happen.

Is there any part of Wisconsin that is going to feel the impacts more than another part?

Everybody will be affected. It looks as if, in terms of extreme heat and rainfall, probably the southwest and Driftless Area are one of the most vulnerable. Right now, and historically, they tend to experience the most extreme weather events. They also tend to be the hottest part of the state because they are in the south and are away from the moderating effects of the Great Lakes.

Along the Great Lakes lakeshore, places are in some ways somewhat protected. For example, if you are situated along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Door County, you are surrounded by water, which has a buffering effect, and so you probably will not be experiencing as many hot days in the future as the rest of Wisconsin.

What about between cities and rural areas?

Both will be affected in different ways. Flash flooding will become a bigger issue for cities with a lot impervious pavement. In Madison, for example, in 2018 we saw what can happen in a very urban environment during extreme rain events. Milwaukee in 2010 also had a big flood.

Rural areas do not have as big of a problem with flash flooding, but they have a problem with groundwater flooding and lingering flooding. We saw that in 2018 as well. Rural parts of the Driftless area are an example. So, there are several different kinds of flooding — lake flooding, groundwater flooding, and urban flooding and, depending on where you are located, you will be susceptible to one or more effects.

Can you talk more about the extreme events?

How climate change will affect rare extreme events is one of the hot topics in climate research that we don’t have a great handle on right now. There are certain kinds of extremes that we expect will become more frequent, and more intense, with a warmer climate. Things like heatwaves and extreme rainfall are expected to become more frequent because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. Other things like an extreme polar vortex that we have had two to three times in recent winters, are still an open question.

Extreme, severe weather like derechos and hail storms, are also things that we don’t have a good sense of. Those tend to be small scale events that climate models don’t handle well, partly because they are not fine enough resolution, partly because we don’t understand the physical processes responsible for them.

But clearly, we need to get a better idea of how things like severe wind storms, hail storms, and tornadoes will change. I think that will be happening as we get more powerful computers and we get a better understanding of the meteorology.

Nationally we have seen an increase in billion-dollar weather disasters around the country. This is something that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has kept records of back to 1980, and you can see a very distinct increase, particularly in the last decade, of the number of extremely expensive weather disasters. Last year (2020) had the most ever by far.

This year (2021) we have seen a number of similarly expensive weather events, Hurricane Ida most recently, and the wildfires out west. I think we can confidently say that this will be another year of high numbers of extreme weather disasters. It is not our imagination that extreme weather in general is getting more pronounced and the price tag for the extreme events is rising.

Even if you might not feel that climate change is affecting you directly, it certainly is affecting the pocket books of many Americans, insurance companies and so forth, and ultimately that affects everyone.

Do you have hope for the future?

Yes, I do have hope for the future, some days more than others. I liken our situation to a patient who is in the emergency room and needs to be treated immediately, but they are not in hospice. There are things we can do but we definitely need to take action quickly.

One of the things that gives me hope is that there’s greater awareness of climate change and its impacts, greater acceptance, greater realization that we really do need to do something. There’s also hope in terms of cleaner energy being much cheaper than it used to be. The cost of solar and wind energy has been plummeting in recent years and there’s a natural economic incentive to transition away from fossil fuels. That trend will continue as well.

There are also technological improvements all the time as we try to improve battery energy storage, improve our infrastructure, and create different ways to build energy efficiency into our buildings. Economic incentives are also in place that should also help boost our readiness in terms of climate change. There are lots and lots of different creative ways that people are using their knowledge on this problem of climate change.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Steve Vavrus
Senior Scientist, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research
Co-Director, Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts
(608) 265-5279
(608) 263-4190 (fax)