Sunday, February 15, 2015

SPECIAL REPORT: How climate change is affecting our towns

While many acknowledge that climate change is a serious issue for the future, and on a global scale, some might be surprised that its effects are already being felt in Northeast Ohio.

To consider those effects, Case Western Reserve University held a symposium entitled “The Impacts of Northeast Ohio’s Warming Climate” to discuss this local impact from a variety of perspectives.

The six member panel included David Beach, director at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History; Aparna Bole, a pediatrician at University Babies & Children’s Hospital; Bryan Stubbs, executive director of the Cleveland Water Alliance; Dave Spangler, president of Lake Erie Waterkeeper and charter boat captain; Marnie Urso, senior program manager with the National Audubon Society; and Joanne Scudder, director of sustainability with the Cuyahoga County Fair.

With about 150 people in attendance, Beach got straight to the point: “I think climate change is the most important issue facing humanity. Climate change is not some hypothetical problem for some distant future. It’s real, it’s here today and it’s effecting us in Northeast Ohio today. It’s affecting our health, wildlife, agriculture, economy, infrastructure, [the] Great Lakes, and a host of other things.”

Climate change has a significant impact on our health, particularly for those with allergy and asthma problems, Bole said.

The changing climate has resulted in worsening air quality, an increase in heat waves, more droughts, higher carbon dioxide levels, and a lengthened season for ragweed pollen. Greater Cleveland was ranked as having one of the highest rates of asthma prevalence.

That makes climate change one of the most serious health threats facing our nation, yet few Americans are aware of its consequences for families, Bole said, quoting American Public Health Association director Georges Benjamin.

“For me as a pediatrician, the impact on children is of particular concern. Children represent a particularly vulnerable group that is likely to suffer from the direct and indirect adverse health effects of climate change,” she said.

A common concern among the panelists was the effect climate change has on one of the area’s most precious resources — Lake Erie.

Spangler, who is in his 23rd season running charters, said heavy rains that have resulted in nutrient runoff into the rivers are creating an algae situation in the lake.

Algae systems only need phosphorus and warm water, and when they thrive it enables more undesirable fish to flourish, he said. That has created a dead zone under the thermocline in the Great Lakes that is over 3,000 square miles and getting bigger every year.

“Lake Erie is the walleye capital of the world. Just sport fishing in Lake Erie is a billion-dollar industry and supports 20,000 jobs. It is also the most valuable commercial fresh water fishery in the world. The lake water temperature is staying warmer longer, well into October. I cannot find clean water to catch the fish,” Spangler said.

Algae blooms also affect drinking water and have resulted in local water bans.

“In 2013 we were told for the first time, ‘Do not drink the water.’ I’m shocked, upset. Are you kidding me? I can ‘t drink my water — how can that happen in this day and age?” asked Spangler.

Stubbs said water is an under-appreciated asset to the area and a significant driver to our gross economic product.

Heavy rains associated with climate change have resulted in more basement and street flooding. The rains are becoming more frequent, with three “100 year” storms in the last 10 years.

Warmer atmospheric temperatures can hold more moisture in heavy rain events and is one of the most measurable changes of climate in Northeast Ohio, said Bole.

“Way back when, one inch of rainfall was a biggie, today we get five to six inch rainfalls all the time,” Spangler added.

Climate change is also responsible for colder temperatures and heavy snowfall, which is counter-intuitive. But don’t confuse weather with climate.

Bole pointed to research that has indicated the melting of Arctic ice can destabilize the polar jet stream, allowing cold air to wonder south. And when Lake Erie doesn’t freeze, it loses water through evaporation, which results in more lake effect snow.

Agriculture also has a vested interest and reliance on local climatic conditions. Paradoxically, it is also a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.

Scudder reported that conventional farming and food production accounts for one-third of all environmental pollution originating in human activity.

“The accelerated pace and the intensity of projecting climate change require major adjustments worldwide. For years we’ve been saying, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming.’ Now it is time to stand up and take notice,” she said.

Climate change affects which crops can be grown locally, dependent upon temperature, rainfall, frequency of drought, length of growing season, and insects.

“Related to the livestock issue one of the most important personal choices we can all make to reduce our personal carbon emission is to eat a more vegetarian diet,” Beach said.

The event was sponsored by the National Audubon Society, who has for years been tracking the impact of climate change on birds, with annual counts in Wellington and other areas of Lorain County. Changes include migrating birds arriving earlier, wintering birds shifting north, and the potential extinction of local species.

“Birds are finely tuned to a set of environmental conditions. Everything about its physiology, behavior, and genetics allows it to be successful in that environment. A changing habitat means new competition for food and resources as well as new predators,” Urso said.

Climate models by the Society indicate that those in danger include the bald eagle, burrowing owl, common loon, and Baltimore oriole.

Civic involvement was a consistent recommendation of the panelists for those who want to institute change.

“It’s a matter of choice. We can choose a more sustainable world if we want to, we can imagine it and we can demand it from our elected officials. All we need is to be more political. We have the technology, we know how to fix things, we know how to design a society that is in sync and harmony with the rest of biosphere — it’s the old fossil fuel politics that is transforming the society,” Beach said

“Talk to your elective officials. Keep the politics out of it. The lake doesn’t know blue from red, it just doesn’t want to be green,” Spangler said.

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