A hard rain’s a-gonna fall

“Oh, what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’…”

-Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

It was with a heart as heavy as the freezing rain-laden clouds covering southern Wisconsin last weekend that I began reading Wisconsin’s Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation. Lightning flickered and thunder rumbled ominously over the Wisconsin River valley as I cracked my copy of the report, the first ever from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). Appropriately enough, one of the 214-page report’s conclusions is that much more of Wisconsin’s winter precipitation will fall in the form of freezing rain in future years.

We are losing our Wisconsin winters, dear reader, and they’re not coming back.

How could they, with statewide annual average temperatures likely to rise by 6-7 degrees Fahrenheit over the next forty years, as the current climate trend and highly sophisticated computer modeling predict? The expected rate of warming, according to the report, is about four times greater than what we have experienced since 1950.

If 6-7 degrees still doesn’t sound like much of an increase to you, just consider what a “mere” 1.5 degree rise has wrought since 1950:

  • Spring (defined as the date at which daily temperatures have reached 50 degrees F for 10 days running) now arrives three to 10 days earlier.
  • The annual frequency at which daily low temperatures fell below zero diminished by about five days across southern Wisconsin and by 14 to 20 days across northwest-central Wisconsin. That’s a 10-30 percent reduction in the number of extremely cold days each year.
  • Both the frequency and magnitude of heavy rainfall events have increased. In the past decade alone, Madison experienced 24 days of two inches or more rainfall and nine days per decade of three inches or more rainfall, nearly as many as the five previous decades combined.
  • Robust data sets of ice cover going back about a hundred years before 1950 indicate that average ice cover on state lakes has decreased between 10 and 40 days, with southern lakes showing the highest losses.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

The report does not directly address mitigation. Its authors are careful to point out that not all of the likely future impacts to our state from climate change will be negative, and impacts will vary across the state. The positive impacts, however, will likely come at the expense of other things. The growing season will lengthen significantly, but that will probably result in a more rapid depletion of our groundwater aquifers. Soybean yields could increase with higher CO2 levels but corn yields probably won’t, especially if droughts and floods both become as prevalent and extreme as history and computer modeling suggests they will. Some animal species, like Canada geese, will thrive but their spread will impact other species of plants and animals and have negative consequences for human health. Non-native brown trout may do OK in Wisconsin’s warmer streams, but we will likely lose most of our native brook trout by mid century.

As I read the report, certain realities stung me like sleet, even though I’ve know for some time they were true: future impacts will be profound, they will cost us much, we won’t be able to adapt to all the changes on the way, and we will have to endure the loss of much of what we have come to know as Wisconsin.

WICCI is made up of a science council composed of a diverse group of scientists from a range of disciplines that oversees 15 working groups, which are in turn made up of experts from a variety of fields; an advisory committee of stakeholders from the public and private sector; an outreach committee; and an operations unit.

I strongly recommend every policy maker (that includes every voter) read the new WICCI report, which can be downloaded for free on the WICCI Web site. No, it’s not exactly bedtime reading. But if you’re like me and would rather be prepared for the new world we’re waking up to, you’ll want to read it and urge your government representatives to do the same.

While you’re at it, tell your state assembly and senate members to provide more funding for the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, which manages data for climate monitoring, provides climate information to Wisconsin residents and government agencies, and conducts applied climate research. If you care about education in Wisconsin – and what is education but teaching people how the world has changed and preparing them for the changes that are coming – the Wisconsin State Climatology Office is as worthy an investment as any we can make.

I’ll be writing more in future posts about the changes the authors of the new WICCI report say are in store for the heartland, and the steps they recommend we take to adapt to those impacts. Meanwhile, I’d like to end this post by pointing out something the otherwise comprehensive WICCI report does not address: the likely impacts on our hearts.

Future areas of focus for WICCI should include the psychological impacts climate change is likely to have on Wisconsinites. I view these impacts to be as serious as any of the trauma-inducing events life can throw at us: job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one. Although many of the changes to our state have been gradual relative to those kinds of blows, that too is changing. As warming accelerates and tipping points are reached, the hard rains come faster and more frequently and are harder to dodge. And the effect on our individual and collective mental health will be profound and long lasting.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin



  1. Rick,
    As always, insightful … and unsettling.
    I appreciate your words. Thanks.

  2. Rick:

    Share and enjoy?? I will share, but enjoy? What a dismal story. Don’t get me wrong; I greatly appreciate your sharing the salient WICCI report findings, but they are sad, indeed.

    What perplexes me is how so many can continue to be so resistant to the evidence….

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Hey Rich,

    Thanks for the eloquent essay on the WICCI report. As someone who had a (very small) contribution to it, it’s great to see you and others reading and reflecting on the implications of these climate changes.

    One new WICCI webtool that I helped develop and that you might be interested in is a climate-analog tool, that allows you to click on a WI location and see the current US locations that are most similar to the WI location’s projected future climates. The UW-Madison Cartography Lab had a big hand in this too… The URL: http://www.wicci.wisc.edu/climate-map.php

    Jack (“Slipfoot”) Williams

  4. I look forward to giving the analog tool a try, Jack. Thanks for your work on the WICCI report — and for your kind words.

  5. The map tool Jack turned me on to is definitely worth checking out. Follow the link in his message to find out what your part of Wisconsin is likely to feel like in the not-so-distant future. The more we know the better we will be able to prepare (and adapt).