Climate Change – Bringing Weather on Steroids

Recently, Nature Change took the opportunity to talk about the impacts of climate change with three respected experts at the University of Michigan:  Dr. Don Scavia, Professor and Directory of the Graham Sustainability Institute; Dr. Knute Nadelhoffer, Professor and Director of the UM Biological Station (Pellston, MI); and Dr. Phil Myers, Emeritus Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Dr. Philip Myers
Dr. Philip Myers

Through individual interviews, we learned that climate refers to the long-term trends in weather. The day-to-day variations in weather can sometimes mask the long-term signal or trends of change. However, measurements show that the climate has already changed in our region, including an increase in temperature and a timing shift in precipitation patterns.

Scientific research carried out at the UM Biological Station over many decades has also demonstrated an increase in average temperatures, particularly at night. Additionally, there has been a shift of small mammals northward (as demonstrated by Dr. Myers’ research on rodents). And in some cases, the movement of mammals was as much as 200 kilometers (~124 miles).

While surface air temperatures have increased, the water temperatures in the Great Lakes have also increased, including substantial changes in Lake Superior. Additionally, extensive ice cover has diminished on the lakes during the winter months. While there have been exceptions, the Great Lakes have had much less ice cover for decades.

Dr. Don Scavia
Dr. Don Scavia

With less ice, evaporation of Great Lakes waters can be more dramatic, impacting water levels. As a result, Great Lake water levels are expected to vary or oscillate even more widely than in the past.

Dr. Scavia pointed out that the variability in winter weather has become dramatic, including some very high temperatures in comparison to past decades. Additionally, the frost-free season has already been extended and much more change is anticipated.

One of the big concerns for the future is the trend toward more dramatic storms. With a warmer climate, there is more energy in the atmosphere, resulting in a much more volatile system, like weather on steroids. For example, even though the summer months are predicted to be warmer and calmer overall, storms are expected to be more severe and more frequent.

Dr. Knute Nadelhoffer
Dr. Knute Nadelhoffer

Climate models have been used for many years to develop a better sense of what the future might hold. These models indicate that the climate Michigan residents grew up with will continue to change over the coming decades, to something like what people feel in Arkansas today.

Dr. Nadelhoffer encourages us recognize and plan for on-going changes in Michigan’s climate. In addition to inevitable changes our flora and fauna, we need to consider how human settlements need to adapt, to provide proper structures for people and avoid making expensive mistakes.

For more information about how climate in the Midwest has already changed and what changes are expected in coming decades, we suggest checking out GLISA. This organization is a partnership involving the University of Michigan’s Graham Institute, Michigan State University and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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