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Understanding Climate Change in Illinois


This past week I was honored to be invited to the Western Illinois University Agriculture Banquet, where faculty and students celebrated another year of education, research, and community outreach. Most graduating students will be filling vital roles in the agriculture, green industry, natural resources, and education sectors. As I sat at my table, I couldn't help but think of the challenges ahead of these students and the massive, even global, problems they will have to face, most notably climate change.

For two hundred years, scientists have understood the complexities of the greenhouse effect of our atmosphere. The first paper to mathematically demonstrate the cause of increased carbon dioxide was published in the 1890s. By the middle of the twentieth century, scientists knew humans were adding carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere, further insulating the planet and increasing average global temperatures. Today climate scientists have a 97% consensus that climate change is caused by human activity.

The science behind climate change is old news, yet humans have been slow to react. Why? Yes, there is the issue of special interest casting doubt on climate research, but also because climate change doesn't feel like a big problem. Our brains are wired to perceive immediate threats such as coming face-to-face with a predator or escaping from a burning building. It's hard to see climate change as a threat while relaxing in your garden on a beautiful day or dealing with the immediate stresses of life itself.

The cause of climate change is known; however up for debate in the scientific community is what will be the results of a warming planet. For us living in Illinois, some climate models indicate an increase in overall annual rainfall, temperatures, and dewpoint, yielding a higher frequency of tropical-like atmospheric conditions by 2090. It would be akin to moving to South Carolina. Other models predict a slight decrease in annual rainfall, while still having higher temperatures. Illinois' climate would be similar to Oklahoma and north Texas.

As the temperature of our planet increases so too does the amount of energy stored in the atmosphere. Climate scientists predict more severe storms due to the increased energy in the atmosphere. Storms with higher intensity will put additional stress on an already aging infrastructure.

Our summers will be getting longer too. A long summer certainly has its perks. Corn and soybean farmers may have more time during the growing season to focus on soil management before planting or after harvest. Gardener's will be getting tomatoes sooner and have longer to ripen those tasty red sweet peppers at the end of the season.

Longer summers also mean shorter, milder winters and an increase in insect, disease, and weed pressure. Northern Illinois gardeners will have to contend with many new southern pests. Additionally, plants adapted to colder climates will not thrive, and the composition of our landscape plants will change.

The North and South Poles have felt the most significant impact to date, and the effects lessen as one travel toward the equator. However, as the climate change scenario plays out, Illinoisans are going to start to notice significant shifts in our climate. Northern US states like Minnesota are already feeling dramatic changes in their weather patterns.

Is this article doom and gloom? Yes, but one of the greatest attributes of the human species is our ability to plan for the future. By confronting the consequences of our actions, we can develop a path to avoid the worst-case scenarios. I can't help but think of this new generation coming into the workforce and cheer for their success, but they can't do it alone. To do your part, you can plant a tree, cultivate a garden, steward a natural area. This Earth Day weekend, volunteer in your community. Pull a weed, plant a flower, break a sweat, and make a difference. Consider becoming an Extension volunteer as a Master Gardener or Master Naturalist. Climate change may very well be the greatest challenge humanity has faced, and it will take all of us to solve this problem.


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