Issues of the Environment: Michigan winters are changing and climate adaptation is key to the future

Overview

  • Meteorologists at the National Weather Service reviewed decades of temperature and precipitation data for southeast Michigan and found the month has, on average, gotten warmer and less snowy. Dr. Richard Rood and other climatologists working through the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA) team have developed models that forecast increasing average air temperatures, with winter temperatures rising the fastest, and snowfall increasingly transitioning to freezing rain or rain.
  • That means Metro Detroit (and all of southeast Michigan) is increasingly less likely to get a “white Christmas,” like the kind carolers long for in the popular song, and get a wet one instead. Cold and snowy weather still comes, but it’s compressed into a smaller time frame, largely in January and February, Rood said. It’s also more sporadic. Bursts of cold air might hit or a storm could dump lots of snow, but those conditions don’t tend to last. The character of winter is changing, Rood said. “It’s like getting little punches of cold air outbreaks,” he said. “The rhythm of cold, snow and ice is changing.”
  • In addition, NOAA data shows the average maximum ice cover on each Great Lake is trending downward. Ice coverage is declining on all five lakes by 0.46% per year on average. As a result, fewer people in southeast Michigan migrate to the Great Lake coastal areas for winter recreation like ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. 
  • Christmas tree farms in our region are also experiencing the effects of climate change, with periodic dry and hot spells during the summer alternating altering the growth of trees. And, without a few long cold spells, the ground doesn’t freeze deeply enough to kill off the fungus and insects that can trouble trees throughout the year. In addition, lack of snowy conditions in early December doesn’t inspire people to head to a farm and cut a tree, and people are more likely to buy a store tree, according to a local tree farmer, Bob Ryan.
  • Warm air can carry more moisture, so winter storms are dropping more snow or freezing rain, UM’s Rood said. Rain and freezing rain are becoming increasingly likely as average winter temperatures tick upward. Regardless of what drops, if warm weather causes ice and snow to melt, areas can experience winter flooding. That’s becoming more typical, Rood said. “That’s not the Christmas story as we know it,” he said. 

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, your community NPR station. It was a Greek philosopher that said the only constant in life is change. Heraclitus may not have recognized back in the sixth century that would apply to global climate, but that certainly has come to pass. I’m David Fair, and I’d like to welcome you to this week’s edition of Issues of the Environment. The climate is most certainly changing, and that’s going to continue. The Michigan winters of your youth are already somewhat different and are likely to change further. Joining us to discuss what that may look like is Dr. Richard Rood. Dr. Rood is a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan. And welcome back to WEMU, Dr. Rood.

Dr. Richard Rood: Thank you for having me back.

David Fair: Now, we’ll dive into the science in a moment. But, purely anecdotally, do winters feel different to you in Michigan these days?

Dr. Richard Rood: Oh, for sure they do. They’re warmer. And one thing that I notice when I’m there is how much wetter they are in the sense that the ground is often muddy, and we see snow. But then, we see rain on the snow, and it gets, you know, the mud season is longer. And and you see more wintertime flooding. So, they are the things that I’ve noticed the most personally.

David Fair: Now, you’ve been working with other climatologists through the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment Team. You can confirm scientifically, too, that we are seeing warmer temperatures in the region as well, right?

Dr. Richard Rood: Oh, we definitely see warmer temperatures. That is the most robust signal that we see is warming temperatures in general, and winters are warming faster than the other seasons are. And we see, for example, snow and ice becoming more confined to the coldest months, January and February. And we’re seeing more rain, say, in November, December, and in March and April.

David Fair: So, as we look at how that manifests in the Great Lakes. Reduced ice cover. What could that possibly mean for us?

Dr. Richard Rood: So, when we say reduced ice cover, I assume we mean reduced ice cover on the lakes themselves.

David Fair: Correct.

Dr. Richard Rood: And what happens when the lakes freeze over, that cuts off the evaporation or reduces the evaporation. So, one of the things that we are seeing is that with less ice cover, especially in, say, December, than when you see these cold air outbreaks come over the lakes, there is a lot of energy there to evaporate water out of the lakes. And so, that has a very large impact on lake effect precipitation. And so, you see the extraordinary types of storms that, you know, delivered the huge lake effects all over the Great Lakes based on around Christmastime this year, but the general idea of seeing more precipitation because there’s less ice on the lake. And then, if it’s cold enough to snow rather than being rain, seeing extraordinary amounts of snow becomes possible.

David Fair This is 89 one WEMU’s Issues of the Environment, and we’re talking with University of Michigan professor Dr. Richard Rood. Now, I understand that as research continues each year, more is going to be learned and predicted outcomes can change. But based on current modeling, what might the winters of Michigan look like a generation from now?

Dr. Richard Rood: One thing I like to say is what they might look like in a generation. So, say 20 to 30 years is quite different from what they might look like in two or three generations. Because one of the things, aside from the warming temperatures that we’re seeing right now, we are in a time of fast change, and those temperatures are going to continue to warm. One of the things we’re seeing right now is that the winters are warming quite definitively. We are still seeing these cold air outbreaks that are about as cold as they’ve ever been, but they’re faster, and there’s not as much of a cold reservoir that causes cold air outbreaks. So, as long as we have those cold air outbreaks, we’ll still see a lot of snow. But, as the climate warms even more, and we see even less and less of the cold air, I expect it will move more towards, you know, wintertime rain. Right now, the other thing we’re seeing, which seems to be a pretty robust signal right now, is that the storms themselves are moistening. So, the amount of moisture that the storms have in them and the amount of potential precipitation is very high. And one of the things that the current generations of models suggest is that in addition to having a lot of rain in the spring, we won’t be seeing increasing rain in the fall. So, we’re, I think, seeing a change in sort of the cycle, you know, the seasonal cycles that we’ve been used to. So, in addition to there being, say, less snow for winter sports and winter businesses and less ice, we’re seeing some pretty big changes in just sort of that cyclical behavior that we’ve been used to.

David Fair: What about our summers?

Dr. Richard Rood: In the summer, we are seeing not quite as much heating, you know, warming up compared to history as we’ve seen in the winter. But one of the things we are seeing in the summer and especially the last few summers have been some of the thunderstorms and even some of the more large-scale storms, again, are wetter. And we’ve been seeing extreme precipitation. And much of the moisture that’s coming into the region of, you know, Michigan–the Great Lakes Basin–is actually coming from the Gulf of Mexico, which is itself getting warmer. So, as long as there is a source of moisture, we anticipate in this time span of a generation of it being wetter and of there being more floods. But when we’re in a dry pattern, and it’s warmer, it’s going to dry out quicker, which is going to feel a little bit like whiplash of potentially moving over into drought conditions more quickly than we would have historically.

David Fair: Once again, we’re talking with University of Michigan professor Dr. Richard Rood on WEMU’s Issues of the Environment. Obviously, there are a lot of efforts to slow warming plans like Ann Arbor has A2Zero. Washtenaw County has Resilient Washtenaw. The state has its MI Healthy Climate plan. But while we’re combating those efforts, that really is focused mostly on mitigation. Are we doing enough when it comes to adaptation? Because it’s changing whether we’re ready or not.

Dr. Richard Rood: I would say we are not doing enough on adaptation, and people are only beginning to make that shift over to thinking we have to adapt. There’s been so much public discourse focused on mitigation. And what I think is really something of, I’ll call it, a false hope or a false knowledge that if we achieve the mitigation goals, we would not have to adapt. But it’s been obvious to those who are especially interested in adaptation and that aspect of climate change that we have to adapt now, and the adaptation challenges are going to be getting worse or more difficult because of things like increased precipitation. And that then aligns or compounds with the fact that the infrastructure that we have was built for, you know, a climate, you know, 50, 100 years ago. And there are always challenges of maintaining infrastructure. So, in a place like southeast Michigan, where you’ve seen a lot of floods recently, there are big efforts on adaptation that are associated with water management that we really need to be thinking about. We need to be thinking about them in terms of things like zoning, land use, and more than just as individual, say, you know, shoring up your basement drainage or something like that. We need to be thinking about it systematically at this point.

David Fair: As I mentioned, the research and the work that you were doing in the studies all ongoing. What are you going to be looking at over the next few years as we move towards this kind of unknown future?

Dr. Richard Rood: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is we are not really set up very well for this idea of change. We are used to say planning and designing for historical climate. That’s been pretty stable. But now, it’s changing so fast that, even statistically, it’s different every ten years. How do you use this knowledge? How do you make good decisions that will, say, be important and have consequences for ten, 15 or 20 years? But how do you revisit those over the course of that time, so that you can anticipate the next ten or 15 or 20 years? And then, at the same time, really working on that mitigation problem so that you can see an end in sight to that, you know, sort of constant how are we dealing with change. So, I think how to frame the scenarios for planning and making good decisions at every scale is where I’m going to be focusing my attention.

David Fair: And I thank you so much for your time and perspective today, Dr. Rood.

Dr. Richard Rood: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is Dr. Richard Rood, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan, and our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on the changing climate and today’s conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I’m David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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