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Warming winters: How climate change is affecting southeast Wisconsin

Data shows the rate of climate change is significant around the Great Lakes and Northeastern U.S.
Posted at 4:11 AM, Dec 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-13 09:06:37-05

MILWAUKEE — Winter is getting warmer, and data shows the rate of warming is especially significant around the Great Lakes and Northeastern U.S.. Temperature data shows in the last 50 years in Milwaukee the average winter temperature has increased a little more than 4°F.

Dr. Michael Notaro, Associate Director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, works at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and researches climate change in Wisconsin.

"Minnesota and Wisconsin have had some of the greatest amounts of warming in the winter. I would say in Wisconsin during the last roughly six decades or so that most parts of the state in winter warmed about 3-5°F," Dr. Notaro said.

Dr. Notaro also said their studies suggest that by the mid to late 21st century the Great Lakes will likely have more cold season rainfall and less lake effect snowfall.

That's bad news for snow lovers.

"The snow season will continue to become more compacted where, what you might call the fringe of months, November, December, March, April, have very little snow, and most of the snow is compacted to into the middle of the winter season, and a lot more rain occurring because of the warmer temperatures," said Dr. Notaro.

Winter ice coverage on the Great Lakes has been declining as well. One study from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab found from 1973-2017, total ice cover decreased more than 60-percent.

"Modeling work is suggesting by the end of the century that the Great Lakes will be mostly ice free by the wintertime," Dr. Notaro said.

While there are some lifestyle benefits to warmer winters, like lower heat bills and less shoveling, there are significant negative consequences. The rapid rate of warming means many ecosystems don't have enough time to respond to the environment. There are impacts to plants, trees, animals, local waters, fish, and even local businesses that depend on winter weather.

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