PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday August 6th, 2013, 1:21pm

A Look At How Climate Change Could Affect The Prairie State

Illinois is on track to experience more scorching summers and frequent extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves, and severe storms in the upcoming years if significant steps to address climate change are not taken soon, climate experts say. Progress Illinois examines what climate change means for different parts of the state. 

For a number of years, climate scientists have warned that Illinois is on track to have sweltering summers that resemble those of Texas by the end of the century if climate change trends continue at their current pace.

Not only will Illinois experience more scorching summers and a rise in temperatures, extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves, severe storms and flooding are expected to become more commonplace if significant steps are not taken to address the issue of climate change, scientists and experts say.

“By increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increasing global temperatures, we are essentially loading the dice for more frequent and more severe storms and these other weather patterns,” said Julian Boggs, federal global warming program director at Environment America. “One drought or one downpour can’t be blamed on global warming, but in a warmer world, these things will be more frequent and intense.”

The entire state will feel the effects of climate change, although the direct impact will vary by region, according to Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel.

"It's not like it's going be warmer of 8 degrees in northern Illinois and 20 degrees in southern Illinois," he said. "It's all pretty much across the board."

But how a warmer climate would directly impact Illinoisans would depend on where they live in the state, Angel said.

The northern part of the state, where the average snowfall from fall through spring is about 40 inches, would see the amount of snowfall go down considerably if the climate warmed up anywhere from 4 degrees to 8 degrees, he explained.

Meanwhile, the southern part of the state would not see much of a difference in snowfall if temperatures rise, Angel said. That's because the area does not experience that much snow to begin with, he noted.

Those near Lake Michigan should also be concerned about climate change’s effect on lake levels, which are already historically low. Farmers in more rural parts of the state will be dealing with more extreme weather events that pose significant threats to agriculture.

Climate change's potential impact on agriculture would stem from more frequent droughts and the increased heat stress on crops and livestock, said LuCinda Hohmann, Midwest campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Winters and springs are projected to be wetter, leading to more instances of flooding that can damage crops. Additionally, future climate projections show warmer winters and longer growing seasons in Illinois, meaning farmers would have more pests to deal with for a longer period of time. Changes in spring patterns can also delay the planting season.

The growing season starts about a week or two earlier now than it did 30 or 40 years ago, explained Angel. A longer growing season does not spell a “catastrophe,” he said, but it does shake up the state’s ecology.

Over the past few years, for example, Illinois has experienced unusually warm temperatures in March, which caused trees to emerge from dormancy and birds to start migration earlier, Angel explained.

The earlier growing season has been most noticeable over recent years because trees started to leaf out and flower much earlier, but were then “hammered” by a later frost, he added.

“If you warm up the average temperature in Illinois by a degree or two or three, that doesn’t make that much of a difference. But if we simply start getting more heat waves or flooding events or more of these odd spring events, then that can have some pretty significant impacts,” Angel said.

In Chicago, dangerous heat waves have already become more frequent and hotter, and they are expected to get worse, Hohmann noted.

“Your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Dangerous heat waves have become more common in Chicago because the weather has changed,” Hohmann said. “During the summer, more hot air masses considered a threat to public health are settling over Chicago, compared to when baby boomers were growing up. Over the past 65 years, these oppressively hot air masses have not only become more frequent, they’ve also warmed significantly.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently updated its “Heat in the Heartland” report, which was first released last summer. The updated report tracked air masses from 1948 to 2012 that passed over Chicago, among other cities. 

The new research shows a spike in dangerously hot days and a decrease in cool, comfortable days in Chicago, Hohmann said.

The number of days with dangerously hot temperatures has also jumped from an average of seven days in 1948 to 13 days in 2012. And, consequentially, the number of cool, comfortable summer weather days dropped; falling from an average of 17 in 1948 to nine days by 2012.

The city of Chicago has worked to prepare for the new environment it is facing, including putting a focus on heat waves. As part of the city’s 2008 Climate Action Plan, the city formed an Extreme Heat Working Group, which assesses the effectiveness of Chicago’s cooling centers. Currently, the city uses government buildings, like libraries and fire stations, as cooling centers where people can go 24 hours a day to escape the heat. The city also uses thermal mapping to improve strategic planning decisions involving green space and green infrastructure.

As Progress Illinois has reported, Cook County also has a plan to ensure the Chicagoland area is prepared for climate change-related weather and other disasters.

Climate Change And The Great Lakes

But it’s not just heat waves and droughts that should be of concern, climate experts say. The Great Lakes are also experiencing troubles that have partially stemmed from and will be aggravated by climate change.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Michigan’s water levels in January 2013 were at an all-time low, and six feet lower than the record high set in 1986.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) made mention of this on the Senate floor in June, the same day President Barack Obama delivered a noteworthy speech on climate change.

“I believe the environment is a challenge we must face head on,” Durbin said. “To ignore it is to ignore reality. Lake Michigan, when measured just a few months ago, was at its lowest depth in any measured time in recent history. What we are seeing in global warming is the evaporation of our Great Lakes. It is a scary thing to think about what this will ultimately do to us.”

Angel said a likely factor behind the lower water levels is due to the reduced ice coverage on the Great Lakes in the wintertime, which is caused by the milder temperatures. The reduced ice coverage can lead to an increase in the amount of lake water that evaporates.

Dredging, natural erosion, water diversion, low precipitation and higher quantities of water evaporation can all contribute to water loss.

“We’ve had some trouble with low lake levels in the recent years, so that’s certainly a concern as we move forward,” Angel said.

A majority of the climate models that researchers at the Illinois State Climatologist Office have studied for the next 100 years or so project lower lake levels over the next century. Some, however, did show higher lake levels based off projections that Illinois would be much wetter than it is today, Angel explained.

“There’s still a fair amount of uncertainty on how that all is going to play out,” he stressed.

Low lake levels are tied to various economic impacts. For instance, when lake levels are low, there are more places, especially around harbors, where commodity shippers may scrape the bottom of the lake, Angel said. As a result, carriers have to lighten their load, which ultimately drives up the price of commodities. Marinas might also need to be dredged to ensure boats can move in and out, he added.

Shoreline ecology, tourism and recreational activities also take a hit when lake levels are low, the climate experts said.

“It’s not like it has to drop 20 meters before we start to have any trouble,” Angel added. “The Great Lakes don’t fluctuate that much, so just a meter or two below the overall average, and you start to feel the impacts.” 

Boggs, from Environment America, is also concerned that Lake Michigan will start to see massive blooms of toxic blue-green algae, which has already taken hold in Lake Erie. The algae blooms in Lake Erie can be seen from space due to the lake's shallow state, Boggs explained. When lake water heats up, it becomes more hospitable for the algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

As the climate continues to warm, it could heat up some of the deeper lakes like Lake Michigan. Boggs said he fears these algae blooms could also become “the new normal” in the deeper lakes. The cyanobacteria discharge toxins that can cause rashes, itching, hives and sickness in adults and can also harm animals and fish.

Sewage, agricultural runoff and other pollutants dumped into the Great Lakes feed the algae, Boggs explained. This “nutrient rich stew” mixed with a warmer climate creates a “perfect environment” for the toxic cyanobacteria.

“If we’re going to plan out how we’re going to preserve the region’s greatest resource, the fresh water in the Great Lakes, then we’ve got to figure out how to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change,” he said.

Some 40 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States comes from power plants. In his June 25 climate change address, the president outlined a new plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants. He directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants” and complete its new pollution standards for future and existing power plants.

“The president’s actions here provide a huge opportunity to rally around some of these solutions that can actually make a really big impact in this problem,” Boggs stressed.

Hohmann said Illinois is “really well positioned” to have an influence in the country’s conversation about reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change. Specifically, she said Illinois could serve as a national example when it comes to clean energy.

“Illinois can do its part to help solve climate change and change this trajectory that we’re headed [on] by implementing our own carbon reducing policies here in Illinois and really being a leader in the country,” she said.

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