TIME TO RAMP-UP THE CLIMATE CONVERSATION

“Everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”

Apparently there is some controversy about who actually is responsible for this quote that has been repeated multiple times over the years. The popular line of thinking attributes the quote to Mark Twain of “Tom Sawyer” fame.

As we know, popular thinking is not always correct thinking. Those who actually go back and research this sort of thing now believe the quote needs to be credited to Twain’s good friend and fellow author, Charles Dudley Warner.

weather-sunny-clip-artWe live and breathe weather; it works its way into seemingly every conversation. This is especially true if you hitch your horse to a farming occupation. Weather is the here and now: the thunderstorm, the wet spring, the summer drought, a freak May snowstorm. It seemingly can’t be blamed on anything or anybody, but it does provide a useful conversation topic when nothing else is appropriate or everything else is uncomfortable.

Many fewer conversations take place in our lives about climate, or more specifically climate change. For me, it is by far the more interesting topic. Long-term weather data is a fascinating study. Though climate conversations dwarf weather conversations in our daily lives, there have been many climate research studies and worldwide summits addressing the issue of a changing climate.

Closer to home, a large contingent of Wisconsin scientists and informed individuals recently released the climate change study report “Wisconsin’s Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation.” The 226-page report is written for the average person to read with lots of really nice pictures, tables and graphs. Impacts are addressed for our state’s natural resources, people and agriculture.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to read the report and deny that what is going on with our climate is merely attributable to some short-term weather cycle, though such things do exist. Climate change has and will impact Wisconsin agriculture in a variety of ways, for better and worse. In fact, the same change can have both positive and negative impacts. Further, we can measure what has happened up until this point in time, but future predictions can only be done using computer models. The report does a nice job of outlining several possible scenarios.

The USDA released its time-honored plant hardiness zone map in 2012, an update from the 1990 version and the 1960 version before that. With each successive release, Fond du Lac County has shifted into a warmer zone. Something is going on here.

According to the climate change report, Wisconsin’s annual average temperature rose by about 1.1 degrees from 1950 through 2006. While this is just an average, some areas in northwest Wisconsin have seen increases as high as 4.5 degrees. Further, climate models show Wisconsin’s change in average annual temperature will increase by 5 to more than 6 degrees between 1980 and 2055.

Coupled with the raw temperature change, Fond du Lac County now has fewer winter nights below 0 degrees and more summer days above 90 degrees. One of the most dramatic maps in the report relates to the length of the growing season, the days between the last spring freeze and first fall freeze. Since 1950, the average growing season in Fond du Lac has conservatively increased by 10 to 12 days.

Higher average temperatures and lengthened growing season offer something of a mixed blessing for crop farmers. The longer growing season allows for planting longer-season hybrids and varieties with greater yield potential. This, in fact, is already happening. At the same time, higher night temperatures result in increased plant respiration, which lowers yield potential. Further, higher temperatures exasperate the negative effects of low summer rainfall periods.

A discussion about climate change isn’t complete without some mention of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The relationship between carbon dioxide levels and increasing temperature trends is well-documented. Prior to the 1950s, levels of carbon dioxide were below 300 parts per million (ppm). In fact, as much as scientists can tell, levels had been relatively steady and below that level for centuries. Since the 1950s, carbon dioxide levels have increased exponentially. Likely, within the next two years, we will cross the 400 ppm concentration level.

Pointing fingers, raising fingers or doing anything else with fingers won’t change or fix the carbon dioxide trend. I’m not sure how high it has to go before the world’s breadbasket shifts from Illinois to upper Manitoba, but someone probably needs to figure that out if they haven’t already.

I wish it would warm up and dry out this spring. I hate this weather.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

Stuff you can do with this post