Scientists warn of climate change’s impact on Ohio

Scientists warn of climate change’s impact on Ohio

By Marion Renault
The Columbus Dispatch

Scientists deal in hypotheses, not predictions.

But there is scientific agreement on one forecast for the future: Our planet is warming, and it’s going to keep getting hotter.

2016 was the earth’s hottest recorded year. All but one of the globe’s 17 warmest years have happened since 2000. In Columbus over the past 50 years, the climate has warmed faster than national and global rates.

In unity with the scientific community at large, a majority of Ohioans believes climate change is happening — with more than half convinced it’s driven mostly by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Models suggest Ohio summers will be as hot as Arkansas’ by 2095 — an average high temperature of about 91 degrees from June to August — attracting new pests, species and diseases into the region.

Tell us what you think Columbus should look like in 20 years

Climatologists predict that longer-than-usual dry spells will be punctuated by intense storms and flash flooding.

“In the lifespan of a tree, 20 years is not very long. But when the climate is changing at the rate it is now, in 20 years you can see a lot of impact," said Ohio State entomologist Dan Herms.

Only about one in three of Ohioans believe climate change will harm them personally. Experts say it undoubtedly will.

At this point, we’ve passed the tipping point for preventing climate change. But planetary warming can be slowed, said Ohio’s state climatologist Bryan Marks, and natural resources and public health can be protected with the right steps.

"It's a conversation everyone should be a part of because no one is getting out of it,” said. “We all bear the consequences of this.”

Ecosystems will transform

As land and water wildlife habitats warm up and shrink in size and number, plant and animal species will be forced to adapt, migrate or disappear altogether.

“This is what’s so scary about climate change; it’s disrupting something that’s been evolving over millions of years,” said Stuart Ludsin, an evolution, ecology and organismal biology associate professor at Ohio State University.

Scientists say one of the most immediate effects of climate change will be its hit to biodiversity, since increasingly vulnerable wildlife is already battling a spread of threats.
Invasive species such as emerald ash borer, sea lamprey, Asian longhorned beetles and bush honeysuckle have begun to strangle native species populations. Pests, among them ticks and mosquitoes, have begun carrying Lyme disease and other pathogens northbound with them. And urban sprawl has piled the pressure on natural resources by paving over dwindling wild habitats such as wetlands, forests and prairies.

“We act like an invasive species with how we steamroll the environment,” said Jim McCormac, naturalist and retired specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

As the state’s waters warm up, species adapted to cold- and cool- water conditions will struggle. Species expected to decline include lake trout, lake whitefish, walleye and yellow perch.

Pond, forest and stream ecosystems are naturally buffered against sudden changes. So most troubling to Ludsin is that the more perturbations or threats those ecosystems face — and the more native species they lose — the more fragile they will become.

Severe spring rains are expected to increase nutrient runoff from rivers into Lake Erie, where warmer temperatures will encourage the growth of cyanobacteria. So the predicted uptick in temperature and extreme storms will likely lead to more frequent toxic cyanobacteria blooms.

An algae bloom turned the water green off South Bass Island in Lake Erie in 2015. A year earlier, algae in Toledo's water supply left 400,000 residents without water. (Dispatch photo by Eric Albrecht)

In a worst-case scenario, Lake Erie could become so choked by toxic algae blooms that it becomes dysfunctional, threatening its ability to provide safe water, clean beaches and other recreational activities for Ohioans. But Ludsin and other scientists say reducing nutrient runoff and changing land management practices can curb a ramp-up of blooms.

“I don’t see collapse of Lake Erie in our future,” Ludsin said. “People should not throw their hands up.”

Farmers will be forced to reformulate

Climate change has already begun to jolt agriculture with a slew of environmental shifts forcing farmers to rethink how they grow food.

For one, agriculture will increasingly face severe droughts, which are expected to increase in intensity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The trend toward longer stretches of consecutive dry days could stress vegetation and will alter best practices for irrigation.

And as nights get hotter and hotter, livestock animals and crops will lose the chance to cool off overnight — leading to reduced grain yields and rates of meat, milk and egg production.

Farmers could begin pivoting toward crops that will flourish in a warmer climate or that are hearty enough to survive changing precipitation patterns, said Aaron Wilson, a senior research associate and extension coordinator for Byrd Polar and Ohio State Extension.

They will also learn to cope with late-winter warm spells, like the one this year that threatened the viability of fruit trees, winter wheat and alfalfa and other Ohio crops, Wilson said.

Humans will have to adapt

Just as birds, fish and other creatures will adapt to a warming planet, so will Ohioans.

“Of course it feels too late in some ways because we've already done irreversible change to the environment,” said Elena Irwin, an environmental and urban economist at Ohio State. “We know we have to deal with this. It’s not too late to adapt in ways that will be smart... in the long run.”

Experts gave us a range of life changes or new habits that anyone can do if they’re serious about taking a part in tempering global warming and its effects:
• Reduce tailpipe emissions by opting for public transit, ridesharing, bicycling or investing in an electric car.
• Rethink your home energy use by installing solar panels or a green roof. Switch to LED lights. Be mindful about recycling often and properly. And make use of low-cost home energy audits provided by local utility companies.
• Minimize your impact from grocery store to dinner plate by remembering to bring reusable bags and trying to transition to a more plant-based diets. Give composting a go. And since 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. — according to the Natural Resources Defense Council — be more careful about buying the proper amount of groceries for your household.

“A lot of those solutions exist on the ground right now. It’s those little pushes and pulls," said Jason Cervenec, director of education and outreach for Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. “It’s not like you have to wait for the future.”

On a big-picture scale, four out of five Ohioans support funding research into renewable energy sources, and 75 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

There’s a way forward, Wilson said, even if on the whole the situation already feels dire.
“Occasionally I do step back and look at it all and then I hug by daughter tighter at night,” Wilson said. "We have to compartmentalize it. Carve out the piece that makes a difference. What keeps you up at night? What do you want to solve?”


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