Great Lakes region's climate keeps getting warmer, wetter, and wilder

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May 23—Warmer, Wetter, and Wilder.

Those three words are how Aaron Wilson, one of Ohio's top climate scientists, has been summarizing the Great Lakes region's changing climate in recent years. Mr. Wilson is an atmospheric scientist at Ohio State University's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and is a climate specialist for OSU Extension.

"While the consensus is that our future reality is one that is warmer and wetter, we need to really remember that the representation of these climate extremes and models is an evolving process and there are likely to be future changes that we are not yet able to detect," Mr. Wilson said in a recent video presentation.

New research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gives credence to the warmer, wetter, and wilder theme.

In NOAA's latest "Climate Normals" report issued earlier this month, the agency documented warmer, wetter, and more frequent, intense storms in the Great Lakes region between 1991-2020. Its report is based on 30-year trending data updated once every few years to help explain the "new normals" of climate change.

"Nearly every place in the United States has warmed," Michael Palecki, a project manager in NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, said. "It's getting wetter in the East, drier in the West, and warmer everywhere except the North Central United States," he added, referring to the Dakotas.

So while climate change is often viewed as a far off, nebulous concept, there are some impacts happening right now in the Great Lakes region which might surprise people.

One is that Lake Superior has become the second fastest-warming lake on Earth, behind only Sweden's Lake Fracksjon.

And some experts fear that Lake Superior — despite much of it being in isolated, wilderness settings, and being deep enough to hold water from the other four Great Lakes combined — might be joining other lakes, including Lake Erie, in the modern era of chronic algal blooms.

Lake Superior isn't experiencing blooms as large and persistent or as toxic as those in western Lake Erie. Still, the fact they've been proliferating in such historically frigid water has thrown the scientific community for a loop.

Here in northwest Ohio, the warmer, wetter, and wilder theme has hit home with farmers such as Perrysburg Township's Kris Swartz, who — like many others across the Midwest — has seen progressively wetter springs push back planting days for corn and soybeans.

That was especially true in 2019, when the nation's agriculture industry lost billions of dollars because of flooded fields and many farmers had to rely on the federal government's crop insurance to get by that year.

But even in years such as this one, when spring rainfall has been more normal, there have been such rapid extremes in temperatures that farmers have a hard time getting their growing seasons started.

"It got hot early, then it got cool, now it's hot and dry again," Mr. Swartz said. "I'm just planting now. We're more at risk of a drought now."

Many farmers don't like to use the phrase "climate change," because of its political connotations.

But they know something is happening with Earth's climate because of the "new normal" of frequent and intense thunderstorms in the spring, rapid temperature swings, and even an occasional drought in summer.

The weather has compressed their time in the field in spring and fall, resulting in more frustration and anxiety, Mr. Swartz said.

"We always talk about changing weather patterns," he said. "We're trying to adapt our businesses so we can be successful with that new weather paradigm we have."

Such changes prompted social scientist Robyn Wilson, an OSU professor of risk analysis and decision science, to form a team that is examining agriculture's response to climate change with a study that continues through July, 2022.

It is looking at shifting attitudes in the Eastern Corn Belt of the United States, defined in her study as the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

In Ohio, the focus has been on farmers in the Maumee River watershed.

Polling done from August through October of 2019 showed that 75 percent of farmers in this part of the country believe climate change is real, even though many don't necessarily call it that and are split over whether they should attribute it to greenhouse gas emissions or natural phenomena.

Half believe it is caused by humans, Ms. Wilson said.

She said researchers "stayed away from the words 'climate change'" until the end of the survey because of the political connotations and instead "talked to them about impacts of changing weather patterns."

In their questionnaire, OSU researchers told farmers that a composite of projections shows that average daily temperatures in the Eastern Corn Belt could rise as many as 10 degrees by the end of the century, with as many as 15 more inches of rain per year.

Another one of the study's researchers, Mary Doidge, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at McGill University in Montreal, said results showed most farmers "are at least somewhat concerned about climate change impacts and extreme rainfall events are at the top of their concerns."

They were asked to rank their preferred adaptation strategies.

Poll results show they believe that drainage tile is their most effective way of moving excessive water off fields.

They said they would be inclined to install more of it if there are going to be more intense, frequent storms.

Ms. Wilson said it's a strategy that could create more controversy and tension in the western Lake Erie region, though, because of the region's Great Black Swamp legacy.

Studies show the majority of today's runoff entering the lake's tributaries comes through tile drains, a situation that was largely overlooked years ago.

Only part of it comes directly off the surface of farms.

"The way farmers are going to respond to this is by moving more water more quickly and that's going to be a bad thing," Ms. Wilson said. "We already know climate change is bad for Lake Erie in terms of water quality. The reality is this project could show the impacts of climate on water quality are perhaps worse than we thought if we don't act appropriately."

But Mr. Swartz said farmers can't let excess water puddle on fields, either.

"Anything we can do to get that water to go through the soil instead of across the top of it is beneficial," he said. "Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on drainage tiles. But when you have huge, monsoon-type rains, that's not good for anybody."

Soft, all-day soakers are being replaced by more fast-moving thunderstorms.

Studies show the Great Lakes region is second only to New England in the rise of storms dumping an inch or more of rain within 24 hours.

"We can generally handle an inch of rain at a time. But we give us two inches or more and that's difficult," Mr. Swartz said. "I think almost everybody accepts that our weather patterns are changing. Why it's happening doesn't really matter out here. The weather patterns are significantly different than they 20 years ago and are going to changing."

Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, said farmers "are constantly adapting to different challenges they face year after year."

He said 140 million acres — roughly the footprint of New York and California combined — are enrolled in U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs. And he said that farmers in Ohio and elsewhere have doubled their use of cover crops over the past five years, which helps reduce erosion and keep nutrients out of the water.

Algal blooms are nothing new to residents in Toledo and other parts of the western Lake Erie region.

They're on the rise all over the world, with scientists usually pointing to agricultural runoff and climate change as the two common denominators.

But much like algae now found high up in alpine lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park, far removed from big cities and agricultural runoff, the presence of algae along western Lake Superior's shoreline has become a scientific puzzle.

It's much colder there than western Lake Erie, and there isn't anywhere near as much agricultural runoff. Blooms there also tend to stick to the western shoreline, not proliferate much yet in the open lake.

"The first surprise came from the Apostle Islands," Brenda LaFrancois, a National Park Service regional aquatic ecologist, said in regard to an unexpected 2012 outbreak. "We'd never heard of a bloom report from there before."

Water quality itself in often-pristine and unspoiled Lake Superior has been a concern in recent years, with scientists noticing a decline in clarity, she said.

There have been multiple blooms in Lake Superior since 2012, none toxic and none equaling or rivaling blooms in western Lake Erie. They're usually short-lived, a different species than that found in most of western Lake Erie, and somewhat anecdotal.

"Often things are episodic and patchy, so when you see something you need to sample it right away," Ms. LaFrancois said.

Yet researchers worry the near-annual occurrence of blooms in Lake Superior the past nine years is a symptom of climate change which has put them on the cusp of an era they don't want to enter.

"What will the lake tell us next?" Ms. LaFrancois asked. "We don't know what trajectory the lake is on now. The blooms are a sign of broader changes happening in the lake."

Bob Sterner, a University of Minnesota-Duluth Great Lakes researcher, said there's no doubt climate change has come into play.

"We really think it's a case of climate driving this phenomenon," he said. "The lake is incredibly sensitive to warming over time. Whatever's going on with the air is effectively accentuated in Lake Superior."

Less than 1 percent of the Lake Superior watershed is used to cultivate crops, Mr. Sterner said.

"Lake Superior is a great place to see climate change: It's less subjected to other human insults, but it's very sensitive to climate," he said.

Mr. Sterner agreed blooms there "are episodic, but they are occurring more often."

"The question is if we're in the early stages of a new era," he said. "If this gets worse over time, we're in a different world entirely."

First Published May 23, 2021, 8:00am