Is climate change messing with our silent sports?
We've heard a lot about global warming and climate change in the media. It's a science-based issue that's become popular political fodder. Conservatives typically downplay climate change, saying that even if it's real, there is little that can be done about it. On the other hand, some liberals claim the sky is falling and we must ditch our cars and coal-fired plants.
But the scientific data is irrefutable. The global climate is warming, and its up to the experts and politicians to figure out how to fix it.
What does a warming climate mean to our daily lives and choice of recreation? Should we move north now?
Let's start with some definitions:
Weather is what's outside right now at any point or range of time. Its temperature, moisture, wind velocity and barometric pressure. Climate change is defined as significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years.
Global warming is the factual rise in average atmosphere and ocean temperatures since the early 20th century. The earth's temperature has risen 1.4 degrees F, mostly since 1980. These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized countries.
Here's an example of how these differing terms are used: July 2012 was the hottest July on record in the U.S. Those hot July days represent weather, but an all-time record hot July is data measurement for climate change and may represent global warming.
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that global warming is real. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, climate related changes have been observed and documented in the United States and its coastal waters for decades. These include rising temperatures, increases in heavy downpours, retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, longer ice-free seasons on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt and alterations in river flow.
Specific global warming evidence can be found throughout the U.S. Over two thirds of the 150 glaciers that existed in Montana's Glacier National Park disappeared by 1980. Scientists estimate that the remaining glaciers will vanish by 2030. The good news is that the stream flow will be enhanced for several years, making for better paddling. The bad news is that after the glaciers melt, stream flow will decline.
In a recent report by Resources For the Future, climate experts Daniel Morris and Margaret Walls concluded North American mean temperature are expected to increase by 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2039 and as much as 7 degrees at higher latitudes. Precipitation is predicted to increase across the continent with the exception of the southeastern U.S. A number of areas where snow reliably falls is expected to decrease, although areas of New Mexico, Arizona and California will have more snow. Due to weather variability, some areas will experience enhanced snowfall and river/stream recreation while others will see a diminished amount.
Midwest climate forecast
More locally, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) estimates that Midwest temperatures will rise by almost 4 degrees in the 21th century with the largest increases in Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, while portions of Ohio will decrease by 1 degree. Experts predict that the summer climate of Illinois will become more like southern Missouri by 2030 and like Oklahoma in 2090.
Heat waves have already become more frequent, severe and longer lasting. Warmer weather and increased CO2 will lead to increased rates of tree growth.
Annual precipitation has increased 10 to 20 percent in the Midwest due to heavy precipitation events, while central Wisconsin has seen a decrease. Increased evaporation due to high summer air temperature has already led to reduced lake levels. Both summer and winter precipitation has been above average, with the last three decades being the wettest period in a century. There has been historic flooding along the Mississippi River and other areas. With increased heat, Duluth could become the Midwest's Rivera.
Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a collaborative program of the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, estimates the state will warm 4 to 9 degrees by the middle of this century. Northern Wisconsin is projected to warm the most, while the least warming is expected along Lake Michigan. Insects such as ticks and mosquitoes will survive winters more easily and produce larger populations in a warmer Midwest, possibly convincing some people off of forest trails.
The warming is projected to be greatest in winter, with an anticipated 5- to 11-degree increase by the mid-21st century across Wisconsin, with the greatest warming in northwestern Wisconsin. Unpredictable and unreliable snow patternst will likely mean shorter and later ski seasons. Lake ice, which can be used for winter recreation, has already decreased by nearly one month duration over the past 150 years. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts a gradual loss of two to four snow days annually by late century.
Implications for silent sports
Undoubtedly, the cross-country skiing and snowshoeing season will change. In the southern Midwest, there's been excellent skiing four of the last five years. Bitter cold, sub-zero temperatures persist for days, not weeks as in previous decades. However, in the upper reaches of the Midwest, skiers have been complaining about a lack of snow. While this evidence is anecdotal, it is widely held amongst skiers. The experts are split on whether these recent patterns are due to climate change or weather pattern variation.
If you live in an igloo, what's the worst thing about global warming? No privacy!
The warming winters are having a huge impact on motorized recreation. The number of registered snowmobilers are declining, with many trading in their sleds for ATVs. ATV registration is at an all-time high, partly because they can be used year-round.
There is data that indicates climate change may have positive impacts. Two studies have related the effects of temperature and precipitation on outdoor recreation.
In a recent report, Paul Markowski, associate professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, sees enhancement of some recreation, including that enjoyed on beaches, in streams and forests and possibly limited over the winter. A study by J.B. Loomis and J. Crespi finds positive net recreational benefit from climate change due to warmer temperatures, earlier springs and longer lasting summers. Their research also indicates that some tourism patterns will shift toward higher latitudes and altitudes.
John Dee is a private practice meteorologist who lives in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. He also operates a website that includes a short-term snow predication model that's popular with snow enthusiasts. (See www.johndee.com/forecast_graphic.htm.) Dee has been tracking local weather trends since the 1950s.
Dee agrees mankind has an impact on climate, but feels the jury is still out on global warming. "We've been given a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without a box top, and the puzzle is only 10 percent complete," said Dee. "We are trying to put together the climate change puzzle without any kind of guide. Climate science is in its infancy. We've only started tracking El Nino the past 30 years." Dee feels the declining winter snows are just part of a natural 20-year cycle, and not entirely due to global warming.
Most experts disagree with Dee's assessment, including Jon Martin, cairman of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Climate change is real. There will be weather deviations, but the earth's mean temperature is warming and there is no stopping this. It's not going away."
When asked about the recent snowy Midwest winters, Martin agreed that variations will occur with climate change. "In 2011 we had 100 inches of snow in Madison. I would say that's incredibly good luck and not global warming. All the weather systems came our way. Minneapolis only had 25 inches of snow that year." he said.
Martin urges individuals to look at the data and come to their own conclusions. "In 50 years, Midwest winters will have a different feel (because of) increasing temperatures, more rains, less snowfall with springtime creeping earlier," he said. "Fishing will be upset by the temperature slide. Certain game fish cannot tolerate this warming. There are already large fish die-offs occurring due to warming waters, and invasive species, like Eurasian milfoil, are harming our northern lakes."
Marin added, "A late February Birkebeiner might be a thing of the past."
Comedian Stephen Colbert's take on climate change is that "God installed an air conditioner and farmers are seeking crops that can withstand heat, like sun-dried tomatoes and raisins." Colbert adds, "I'm O.K. with higher corn and meat prices, but milk and cheese? How am I supposed to sleep without my nightly servings of cheese and crackers and chocolate milk?"
Colbert's "pick & choose" irony rings true for this writer: Give me snowy winters, warm autumns, and springs with lots of thunderstorms.
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn't interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush, Wisconsin, with his wife, Karen, and dog, Woody.
Local experts weigh in on climate change
Based in Minnesota, Bruce Adelsman owns and operates Skinnyski.com, which many consider the bible of cross-country skiing on the web. (Adelsman says his website generated over 50 million hits in 2011). While he has made it his mission to keep track of all Nordic ski races , Adelsman said he hasn't seen a big change in the number of ski events due to snow and temperature issues.
"Planned events and cancelled ski races have been stable for the past 10 years. It's a fluctuating sport; we have good and horrible years. We've had milder weather but increased precipitation," he said.
Milwaukee master ski racer and avid paddler Charlie Dee (not related to meteorologist John Dee) has tracked recreation weather patterns since the 1970s. "I moved to Wisconsin in 1976, started to cross-country ski and felt like I had won the winter lottery. For the first 10 years we had great skiing. There was always a January thaw but we could ski in the Southern Kettles every year from early December to the first or second week of March. Then in the late '80s, the snow and freezing temps got a lot more inconsistent, with longer grey periods, more thaws and more weekends when I'd have to drive to Eagle River, Minocqua or Ironwood to find skiable snow," Dee recalled.
Dee laments the impact on paddlesports, too. Like many whitewater kayaking and canoeing fanatics, Dee frquently refers to the U.S. Geological Survey's online stream flow data which includes median daily statistic for river levels based on 45 years of data (waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt).
"When I started checking that site regularly in the mid '80s, the readings were very rarely below the median. We could find good whitewater on the Wolf or other rivers from April through October," Dee said. "But for the past 10 years, all the rivers are way below the 45-year median most all the time. The result is much less whitewater and far fewer people in their teens and twenties taking up the sport."
Phil Johnsrud has been an active member of the Iola Winter Sports Club for over 27 years and is widely known for his ski trail grooming prowess. I asked Johnsrud his thoughts on snowfall trends. "It's certainly become harder to keep skiable snow, especially for classic skiing where a good base is necessary. We can typically groom reliably for skating because we don't need as much snow. In the early days, we had to groom because of snow accumulation, now we groom because of the thaw/freeze conditions or else it's too icy to ski. More Midwest cross-country ski areas are either making snow or exploring it, as we adjust to warmer conditions," Johnsurd said.
An vid paddler, Johnsrud also agreed with Dee's assessment of river levels. "The last several years we've found ourselves paddling the bottom of the river. Good whitewater is less consistent," Johnsrud said.
He recently returned from a month-long canoe trip in Montana where paddlers "are dealing with the same kind of problems. It's interesting that everyone I talked to in Montana believes in global warming and recognizes it as a big problem for recreation. I get back to Wisconsin and many people think global warming is a political ploy. I don't get it," he said.