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October 2-8, 2023: WUWM and NPR are dedicating an entire week to stories and conversations about the search for climate solutions. This isn't just about "covering" the climate — it's meant to remind everyone that you can always do something.

State Climatology Office & Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts contribute to solutions

Steve Vavrus says tackling climate change will require a collective rolling up of sleeves.
Edward Deiro
Steve Vavrus says tackling climate change will require a collective rolling up of sleeves.

This week WUWM and NPR are focusing on solutions to climate change — an existential challenge facing life as we know it.

Steve Vavrus is director of Wisconsin’s State Climatology Office and is one of the scientists contributing to the effort.

 Vavrus came from his native Indiana to UW-Madison as a graduate student in 1990. “When I started here as a grad student, climate change was talked about in the future test. Even though there had been some climate change, it was mostly like 'Well someday or in the future this is likely to happen,'” Vavrus recalls.

UW-Madison has become Vavrus’ research home. “I was interested in meteorology and environmental issues. And so climate change is at the nexus of those two,” he says.

Vavrus’ research has been global in scope — including looking at how climate change is impacting Arctic sea ice.

“The Arctic is warming two to four times faster than the rest of the world. It’s the fastest warming region, and the impacts are really extreme. Studying sea ice ended up really mattering now as we’re concerned about the demise of summer sea ice for the first time in who knows how many thousands of years,” Vavrus says.

But Vavrus hasn’t been expending all, or even most of his scientific energies thousands of miles from Wisconsin.

Extended interview with Steve Vavrus.

His desire to tackle climate change in his own environment motivated him help lead the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts or WICCI.

“It was formed in 2007, so we’re over 15 years old now. And it was formed as a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies,” Vavrus says.

Although it has virtually no budget, Vavrus says WICCI has grown in volunteers and expertise; folding in research from around the state.

“Our breadth of study has expanded. So now we have fourteen different working groups dealing with topics ranging from wildlife impacts, forestry, infrastructure, human health, tourism,” he says.

Vavrus co-chairs the climate work group.

“We just had our big assessment report come out last year. It really helps to lay out what’s happening in terms of climate change in Wisconsin; what are the impacts and then what can we do about it,” Vavrus says.

The report highlights promising projects around the state, including one in Crawford County along the Mississippi River.

Rush Creek State Natural Area
Wisconsin DNR
Prescribed fire is an element in stewarding Rush Creek State Natural Area.

Vavrus says Rush Creek State Natural Area's two-mile stretch along the mighty river is Wisconsin’s first grassland climate adaptation site.

“To try to figure out, do some research on what kind of plants are most suitable for a changing climate. That’s a project involving different WICCI members. Our infrastructure working group is involved in projects that look at say stormwater runoff and do we need bigger culverts and how is that going to affect stream crossings,” Vavrus says. “So, very pragmatic.”

While managing impacts is core to WICCI, the institution that Vavrus directs, the State Climatology Office, focuses on more immediate weather and climate impacts.

Scientist Steve Vavrus in his office on the University of Wisconsin - Madison campus.
Susan Bence
Scientist Steve Vavrus in his office on the University of Wisconsin - Madison campus.

“The State Climatology Office formed in the 1950s as a federal directive to all states with federal funding. And that federal funding dried up in the 1970s. As of 2023 the office has money for things it just didn’t have before,” Vavrus says.

Vavrus says over the next few years that funding will result in coordinated weather stations throughout the state — one in each of its 72 counties.

“Having one per county will mean that we have great spatial coverage across the state. And every five minutes there's updates in these weather variables including things like soil moisture, and that's a capacity we've never had before,” Vavrus says.

That kind of data matters to farmers around Wisconsin. Vavrus says that’s part of the State Climatology Office’s revitalized mission.

"One of the things that we're going to be developing is more of a research arm. We didn't have the capacity to do it until now, but that's an important part of a climate office in understanding Wisconsin's weather and climate better: coming up with decision support tools that can help, say, farmers decide when to plant better when to harvest when to spray. So their operations can be more efficient," Vavrus says.

Not only will farmers fare well, but it will encourage creating healthier soils that reap environmental dividends. Vavrus is quick to say the State Climatology Office and WICCI are just pieces of Wisconsin’s climate solutions.

“We really need to roll up our sleeves and figure out collectively what we are going to do about it,” Vavrus says.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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