I moved to Chicago almost seven months ago, and I’ve found many Midwest stereotypes to be true – the people are very friendly, the winters are very cold, the food is crazy good, and the beer is even better. But one stereotype – that the Midwest won’t suffer any severe consequences of climate change – is completely false. While we don’t have hurricanes, and live right next to the largest body of fresh water in America, the Midwest is not exempt from climate impacts – and has plenty to worry about as Earth warms.
Temperatures in the Midwest increased by 1.5 °F from 1895 to 2012, and they are rising more rapidly as time goes on. As it warms, Chicago and the rest of the region will likely experience milder winters, earlier springs, and an increase in extreme weather events like heatwaves, drought, and flooding.
According to the National Climate Assessment, there are five main impacts associated with these climatic changes in the Midwest:
- Public Health: Heatwaves already happen in the summer in this region and have already started getting worse – 700 people died in the heatwave of 1995, and 114 in 1999. While emergency systems are improving, it is often the most vulnerable that are affected the most by heatwaves – the young, the elderly, and low-income communities that tend to have less access to indoor cooling. Periods of high rainfall can also be dangerous to humans, since flooding can cause accidents and lower water quality if sewage systems are not adapted to flooded conditions. Lastly, warmer temperatures can exacerbate poor air quality, which already affects low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately.
- Agriculture: As the breadbasket of America, the Midwest and the rest of the country depend on crop success – mostly corn and soybeans in this region. The climate impacts on agriculture are complex – longer growing seasons and CO2 fertilization could help some crops, but heat and drought could be bad news.
- Infrastructure: High temperatures and high precipitation events can degrade transportation and other critical infrastructure faster than normal. Already, Chicago’s transportation authority has reported difficulties on high rainfall days, and some track misalignment during heatwaves. In a region that is home to very industrial cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, this has huge implications for local governments and workers.
- Forests: Midwestern forests play a crucial role in taking carbon out of the atmosphere – and the changing climate could significantly affect species composition, potentially lowering the potential of these forests to continue pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. Trees are also at risk from urbanization, land-use change, invasive species, and increased pests and disease – so climate change compounds all of these other threats to forest composition and abundance.
- Great Lakes Ecosystem: High temperatures can increase the likelihood of algal blooms in the Great Lakes, which can harm fish, water quality, and the overall habitat. In addition, decreasing ice cover could spur an increase in shipping and commerce on the Great Lakes.
So as you can see, the Midwest must be an active part of the climate conversation, both to slow it and to adapt to its effects. While a lot of great work is happening here around climate change, the region’s electricity is still very reliant on coal power – and energy demand is not likely to decrease as days requiring indoor heating are replaced with days requiring cooling. The Midwest has a tremendous opportunity to transition to clean energy – and several states have already taken positive steps in the right direction. But more on that later…
This post is the first in an environmental blog series about my new home of Chicago. Future posts in the series will explore issues of environmental justice, access to nature, and the energy transition in Chicagoland and the Midwest region.