Digging In

Wisconsin’s Changing Climate

I wrote this column for the La Crosse (WI) Tribune (published on January 10, 2016).

Are Wisconsin winters a thing of the past?

By Casey Meehan

Since our 10 inch snowfall last week, I have spent hours outside with my 3-year-old. Watching him discover the joy of playing in the snow brought me a profound sense of gratitude for our Wisconsin winters. Thanks to the successful agreement hammered out at last month's climate change summit, called the COP21, in Paris, France, there is a chance that our Wisconsin winters will remain somewhat Wisconsin-like.

The COP21 climate agreement, adopted by 196 countries, is the result of hard work and planning by thousands of scientists, diplomats, and leaders across the globe. Among other important objectives, the agreement sets an ambitious goal of keeping the global average temperature rise below 2°C (about 3.5°F) from pre-industrial levels. 2°C is the tipping point beyond which, according to a growing body of research, we risk irreversible and severe disruption to our natural and social systems.

For those of us in Wisconsin the agreement comes not a moment too soon. Research endorsed by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts—a state-wide group composed of businesses, educational organizations, tribal organizations, not-for-profits, and government agencies—indicates that the mercury in Wisconsin is rising. Our state is becoming “less cold,” meaning temperature increases have been greater during winter and spring than during summer. In fact, models project that by 2055, Wisconsin winters will be 5-11°F warmer than the 1961-2000 average.

Snow covered trees across a pond

Credit: Richard Hurd, 2012 Flickr

Considering the evidence, the model seems credible. The average temperature in La Crosse this December was a blistering 12°F warmer than the normal December temperature, making it the second warmest December on record. Climate scientists would tell you that one warm winter month—or even one warm winter—does not prove that climate is changing as much as it highlights that climate is variability. But the trend does not look good for cold-weather enthusiasts. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have happened since 2005, with 2011-2015 being the warmest five year period on record.

Make no mistake, Wisconsin winters are changing. Our lakes have seen a decrease in ice cover since the mid-1880s. Madison's lakes have lost about 30 days of ice cover per year compared to the late 1800s. By 2055 our

Why should we care? Many would consider shorter, milder winters to be a good thing, but consider this: losing even a small piece of our winter changes Wisconsin's unique outdoor culture and economy in big ways.average annual snowfall will be about 13 inches less, and by the end of the century snow cover will decrease from our current average of 140 days to just 96 days.This does not mean that we will never have snow and cold, but it does suggest that the way we work and play in Wisconsin will be markedly different in future winters since the window of time in which to enjoy our winter wonderland is shrinking. Indeed, spring weather now arrives up to 40 days earlier than it did in 1950.

Aside from less time for ice fishing, snowmobiling, and skiing, a lack of snow and ice also affects how we recreate the rest of the year. Warmer winters increase the survival and spread of disease-spreading ticks and other insects and alters migration patterns of game fish and fowl.

Moreover, warmer winters take a bite out of Wisconsin's economy. Winter tourism touches every corner of the state, employing over 11,000 people and contributing nearly $650 million to the economy. For Wisconsin's downhill ski industry alone, low snow years result in losses of over $100 million and 1,200 fewer people hired.

The reality is that Wisconsinites must adapt to warmer winters in the coming decades. That our climate is changing alarms me, but perhaps more concerning is that it is happening at a rate far faster than humans have ever encountered. The 2°C limit imposed by COP21 is crucial in keeping the changes wrought by global warming to a minimum. If adhered to by the COP21 signatories, this limit also serves as a brake to slow down the rate of change.

While not perfect, the COP21 agreement is a starting point that keeps climate change in check and buys us some time to democratically deliberate how to respond to our new reality in a way that is fair to all stakeholders.

I am grateful for our distinct Wisconsin seasons. If you are, too, resolve this year to talk to your friends, neighbors, and elected officials about global climate change. Let’s keep the conversation—and the momentum generated by COP21—moving forward.


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