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Wisconsin's winters are getting warmer, and it's altering our agriculture, economy, health, and way of life. On the heels of Wisconsin's warmest winter ever, Thin Ice explores the impacts.

Exclamation point on a trend: State climatologist weighs in on Wisconsin’s extremely warm winter

Lake Monona, February 2024.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Center For Limnology
View of Lake Mendota, February 2024

Experts say Wisconsin is feeling the impacts of climate change. In fact, it’s all but certain that on Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will announce that this winter is Wisconsin’s warmest on record.

Next week, WUWM's Susan Bence, Lina Tran and Chuck Quirmbach will explore Wisconsin’s warming winters in a series called Thin Ice.

First, we talk to Steve Vavrus, who leads the Wisconsin State Climatology Office for an overview of how climate change is affecting our weather.

Steve Vavrus heads the Wisconsin State Climatology Office
Susan Bence
Steve Vavrus heads the Wisconsin State Climatology Office

Vavrus is quick to remind Susan, climatology is about statistics.

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

That’s why this past warm winter is so concerning.

“It was forecasted to be a mild winter, but not this mild. It’s easy to say we had a big El Niño this winter, and we did. And we’ve had a lots of winters that are warm in the past that had nothing to do with El Niño,” Vavrus says.

El Niño is a climate pattern that happens far to our west on the Pacific Ocean. When the ocean's surface is warmer than usual for longer than usual, it affects weather across the U.S. In our part of the country, it tends to cause warm, dry winters.

“El Niño is not the only explanation for what we’ve experienced. I think it’s reasonable to infer that probably this winter was a combination of a strong El Niño and long-term climate change,” Vavrus says.

Eighty percent of the past 25 years have been warmer than normal. Vavrus says that record pushes the conversation beyond “the expected envelope of variability."

“It’s getting harder and harder to dismiss the climate change portion. The fact that every winter now, I would bet, is going to be warmer than normal … I’m afraid that’s the direction we’re headed … because we’re no longer in a stationary climate anymore,” he says.

Vavrus says this winter is an exclamation point on a long-term trend, one he hopes can provide us with guidance. “It’s one thing to talk about climate change in the abstract, and especially to talk about future climate change, it’s another to experience a record-breaking warm winter or an historically dry period like we had last summer,” he says.

Vavrus says it looks like here in Wisconsin winters and springs will become wetter than they used to be. “And that could mean certainly more rain in the winters than we used to have, but it could also mean more snowfall when conditions are right. The real question is I think, summer,” Vavrus says. “Summer is tricky.”

Climate models show diverging predictions when it comes to summer. “But they do agree on a couple of things. One is that we are going to see more intense rainfalls when we do get rain — summer and other seasons,” Vavrus says.

And increasingly, Vavrus says, climate models point to more swings in precipitation. “From very wet, to very dry and back to very wet again, just saw [this] in 2023,” he says.

That unpredictability could make adapting difficult. “Not just for farmers, but all of us,” Vavrus says.

He says something positive could emerge out of the very warm “attention-getting” winter Wisconsin has just experienced.

Climate change is no longer an abstract concept. “I think that can be a wakeup call for people to say, OK, things aren’t the same as they used to be. What are we going to do about it? How can we adapt to it?” Vavrus says.

Starting Monday, WUWM will explore climate challenges and talk with people working to adapt during our weeklong Thin Ice series on Morning Edition, Lake Effect, and All Things Considered.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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