The Changing Waters of Wisconsin
The Brule River in northern Wisconsin. Will rivers in Wisconsin like this experience more water due to climate change? Photo by Ross Vetterkind

The Changing Waters of Wisconsin

In rural Wisconsin, climate change can seem like nothing more than a policy battle waged between political adversaries in Washington D.C., but scientists expect to see significant changes in our own state in the near future.

A 2011 report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts predicted that the average state temperature will increase six to seven degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century. The report also showed that Wisconsin has seen an increase in average annual rainfall over the last 50 years and expects heavy storm events to become more frequent, with increased rainfall intensity.

Katherine Clancy, assistant professor of fisheries and water resources, said the shift in precipitation patterns has become apparent during the last ten years and will affect water quality and groundwater recharge. High intensity precipitation events are problematic because, high rainfall during a short period offers less opportunity for water to enter the ground, creating more runoff. This runoff in turn could carry sediment and nutrients in to waterways which could lower water quality.

The shifting climate could be particularly threatening to species like brook trout who rely on cold water streams for habitat. According to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts report, brook trout habitat could decrease by 95 percent if summer temperatures increase by just five degrees Fahrenheit.

Clancy said that stream temperatures could be raised even more with increased runoff inputs. This is because runoff could be warmed by running over concrete or from carrying sediments. Additionally, runoff could contain nutrients which encourage eutrophication, further degrading trout habitat.

Clancy also said one of the biggest problems climate change could bring the state is flooding from high intensity rains, which current infrastructure may be ill-equipped to handle. She explained that much of our infrastructure is designed to handle rain events which were not likely in years past but are becoming increasingly common now. This makes the state’s bridges and storm water retention ponds vulnerable.

Even so, Clancy believes climate change can be slowed.

“Many of the things we would do to mitigate climate change have to do with basically just living a healthier, better, more sustainable, mindful life,” Clancy said.

Naomi Albert

About Naomi Albert

Naomi Albert
I am a junior Natural Resource Planning major with a Spanish minor. I enjoy the outdoors and traveling.

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