Wisconsin, like the rest of the world, is experiencing the effects of climate change. More frequent and severe storms, heat waves, wildfires and droughts are just some of what’s in store.
Mauston Mayor Brian Mcguire began tracking National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rain statistics in the 1970s and has continued through today.
“What I found was typically we would have a 3-inch rain maybe every 3 years,” McGuire said. “But now we’re seeming to get 4-5 inch rain… it just seems like they’re getting to be more frequent and more severe.”
Like much of southern Wisconsin, Mauston was hit with severe flooding in August 2018. “We’ve never seen anything like that,” McGuire said. “I think we had 13 inches in two days. But we’re looking at that as not a one-time event.”
Curt Meine, who holds a Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies, said more extreme rain is a part of southern Wisconsin’s future.
“The incidents of extreme rain precipitation events (has seen a) 38% increase since 1958,” Meine said. “(In 2018) where I was in Middleton, I think they measured 11 inches, but out in Black Earth (they had) 15 inches of rain in just a few hours, and that broke all records.”
The heavy rain also will be accompanied by periods of extreme drought and heat.
“Unfortunately, this has become the new normal because of the level of inaction,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. “It’s not a problem that was created overnight… But we have the opportunity to change the tide (for) future generations.”
A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated heat waves could become four times more common by 2050, and even the norm by the end of the century.
By 2050, Wisconsin could experience two weeks per year with heat indexes above 100 degrees every year.
Extreme heat can be dangerous, and is one of the leading weather-related causes of death. A heat wave killed 71 people in southern Wisconsin in 1995.
Delton Fire Chief Darren Jorgenson said emergency services are taking a proactive approach to the changing weather.
“From an emergency management perspective (we’re) definitely communicating emergency response procedures and self-preservation procedures with the community and with the fire department and police department more often than we used to,” Jorgenson said. “Severe weather incidents are definitely on the forefront of things we’re working to better respond to.”
The Delton Fire Department distributes postcards to local businesses with information about where to access resources during an extreme weather event. The area now also has five tornado sirens, an increase from just one in the past.
“We just held a fairly in-depth tabletop exercise related to emergency and crisis communication and the scenario directly dealt with a heat wave with power outage,” Jorgenson said. “That’s very realistic; that could easily happen.”
Jorgenson said during extreme heat, the most at-risk populations are the very young, very old and those who require administered oxygen.
Jorgenson emphasized it won’t be enough for emergency services to be proactive, citizens need to think ahead as well.
“In the event of a large-scale disaster, whether it’s weather-related or man made, emergency services are going to be overwhelmingly stricken pretty quickly,” Jorgenson said. “That’s why it’s important for us to get the message out that people really need to take the initiative to prepare themselves. And there are a lot of resources out there. It’s important that people take advantage of them prior to a disaster.”
Bad for business
Businesses also have been impacted. Former State Senate Candidate Kriss Marion, who runs an Air BnB on her farm, had to make sudden changes for guests when the weather became hostile.
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“We actually had people scheduled to be outside in our campers, and we had to kind of made up space for them in our house,” Marion said. “We are definitely feeling the pinch on the extreme heat.”
Marion has had to adapt on the farm as well.
“We have sheep and hogs and goats that we do managed grazing on our place with,” Marion said. “If it’s too hot, we need to make sure our animals are in a place (and) rotation that has good tree cover. Whereas before, they could have gone a day or two in the middle of a field that was sunny. It just makes everything a little harder.”
Some types of terrain may fare better than others. At the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area, Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance Executive Director Charlie Luthin said converting the land of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant into prairie will not only make the area more resilient to extreme heat, but ease the carbon load on the atmosphere as well.
“Prairie, which is the ultimate goal of the Badger Lands, is actually a heat and drought resistant landscape,” Luthin said. “If we end up with more and more severe heat and drier summers, it would favor the prairie… By creating a large grassland at Badger — ultimately it will be about 5,000-plus acres of prairie and savanna landscape out there — by creating that landscape what we’re doing is actually sequestering carbon.”
But if the heat is accompanied with frequent rain, invasive species may find the environment more to their liking than the prairie, making Luthin’s mission more difficult.
“Nobody understands this more than people who work on the land: farmers,” Meine said.
What to do
State Assembly Rep. Tony Kurtz, a farmer himself, said farming methods are being actively examined and in some cases reconsidered to optimize sustainability.
“I know in 2012, when we had the drought, soils that (had) a lot of organic matter actually tend to hold a lot of moisture,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz said using buffer strips can help prevent runoff and protect crops in the long term.
“In Juneau County, there’s thousands of acres that are not planted because they just simply were under water and some of them still have a lot of water on them,” Kurtz said. “The wet spring, especially August last year, caused a lot of damage. It caused a lot of hay to be destroyed, crops to be destroyed.”
Kurtz said farmers are less averse to innovation than some might think.
“Farmers are very resilient,” Kurtz said. “I think some people think they don’t adapt, but they do adapt… They go through the story of how they evolved. How one practice was thought to be the greatest thing in the world 40 years ago and they then they realize maybe that wasn’t the best way to do things.”
Innovation likely will be spurred in more than the world of agriculture.
An underappreciated aspect of climate change is the longstanding norms of a region leaving its inhabitants ill equipped to deal with sudden change. In traditionally colder places like North Dakota and Alaska, extreme heat was seldom experienced, so buildings and other aspects of the man-made environment didn’t have to take it into consideration. But with the levels and frequency of heat changing, populations that never had to think about how to cool off before will need to look to others for ideas.
“Not just our homes, but our commercial buildings, our infrastructure in general (has all) been built based on a past that is no longer going to be a good guide on the future,” Meine said. “And whether it’s air conditioning and heating, or whether it’s how to deal with that extreme rain on the landscape… I would expect that in all kinds of different fields we’re going to see people asking these questions of how to build our designed environment to anticipate these changes that are to come.”
Meine said one potential benefit of extreme weather events being experienced is the ability to draw attention to the cause.
“It’s a teachable moment when we have those extreme episodes,” Meine said. “It’s kind of discouraging, I admit, at times, because we get sucked into the political back and forth on it so quickly now. We’re now experiencing what many of us who have worked on this for decades have anticipated. We don’t talk about it in the future tense anymore.”
“Unfortunately, this has become the new normal because of the level of inaction,” Barnes said. “It’s not a problem that was created overnight… But we have the opportunity to change the tide (for) future generations.”