Climate Change Impacts Being Felt And Seen Along Lake Michigan And Far Beyond

Feb 26, 2020

Recently the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration reported that this January was the warmest on record for the globe. This information is part of a growing body of evidence that climate change can be seen and felt.

"Even though we can talk about global averages, it may sound like it’s a couple degrees warmer than average — to most people that doesn't seem like a lot. But then if you look regionally or locally, you can see that those temperatures are much larger than that," notes Paul Roebber, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at UW-Milwaukee.

Lake Effect is exploring the impact of climate change in a series of conversations with Roebber over the next few months, and this second installment addresses one listener's question:

"The 'cooler by the lake' effect for neighborhoods near Lake Michigan is not nearly as noticeable as it was decades ago. Why? Climate change?"

Roebber says the effect can still be felt, but it's less prominent.

"You expect to see the cooler by the lake in the summer and so you have a really hot day and that cool air that's over the lake will come on shore, and you feel that natural cooling effect. But if you have significant warming of the surface waters of the lake, which is what we've been seeing, then the amount of cool air that's available on the lake is still there, but it's not nearly as strong as it used to be," he explains.

Atmospheric science distinguished professor Paul Roebber says it is important to recognize climate change impacts are being felt globally, from here on Lake Michigan to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.
Credit Susan Bence

Roebber says it's not only important to tune in on the subtle and bigger impacts of climate change we are feeling on the Great Lakes, but also the dramatic shifts in other places in the world — including the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

Roebber says the glacier acts as a giant plug for the west Antarctic ice shelf, but that plug is giving way.  Scientists suspected the glacier was unstable, but until recently they lacked measurements to prove it.

"A field program was recently completed where they measured what the sea water was underneath that glacier ... They found that in fact it is several degrees above freezing," he notes. "It verifies the hypothesis that the water is sufficiently warm that it's melting the glacier from underneath. That distabilizes the glacier; it just slides down into the water and the whole shelf begins to collapse."

Roebber says the vast amount of melting ice could raise global sea levels by 10 feet. "And that ten-foot rise doesn't happen over night, it's over hundreds of years."

While scientists can't predict the exact time scale of the melting process, "We do know that all of this is happening a lot faster than we originally thought," Roebber says.

Roebber says the impacts of rising sea levels will be extremely expensive and distruptive. "And if you don't think that is going to have an influence in the Midwest, you should think again — because it will."

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