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Study: Climate change to alter state’s landscape

August 12, 2018

In 30 years, northern Indiana summers could feel like those of southwest Kentucky today, and the southern half of the Hoosier State could mimic the Deep South.

A more dramatic path, and the one we’re on, would place Indiana in a climate similar to that of southeastern Texas by the 2080s if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, according to reports from Purdue University’s Climate Change Research Center.

Titled the “Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment,” the reports use the latest scientific research about the impact of global warming on areas including climate, health and agriculture. The goal is to better understand “climate change-related risks and build more effective plans for a more productive future,” according to the project’s website.

While blowing the clarion alert, the reports note a range of climates is possible depending on future greenhouse gas emissions and how the climate system responds. At minimum, the reports point to a shift from the past and urge Hoosiers to prepare for various climatic conditions.

The fifth of a planned 11 reports was released in late July.

By mid-century, climate change is expected to bring hotter days for Hoosiers, less snow, more disease-carrying pests, poorer air quality, an extended allergy season, increased medical costs and more premature deaths, the reports state. 

Warmer weather will provide farmers a longer growing season but with no additional rain and possibly reduced yields from increased crop heat stress. Wetter winters and springs could increase flooding and wash fertilizers from farm fields.

Northern Indiana will experience fewer extreme cold days; furnaces will run as often as southern Indiana today, but air conditioners will be running far more often. The number of days with frozen ground is expected to drop by more than a third. A longer growing season will provide the chance of double-cropping or a wider variety of crops. Sweetgum and pecan trees will find northern Indiana hospitable. Some weeds, however, will migrate to frustrate northern Indiana farmers.

Roger Hadley, Allen County president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, hadn’t read the July report about the effects of climate change on agriculture but had heard about it.

Farmers talk about abnormal growing seasons, he said, but many don’t know how much weight to place on the dour predictions.

“As we look at the last eight or 10 springs and summertimes we shake our heads and say ‘Well, this isn’t what we remember as normal.’ And then we say, ‘I guess what’s normal is actually the average of the last eight to 10 years, so it’s the new normal,’” he said.

While there seem to be more abnormalities than decades ago, it’s hard to believe Indiana weather could resemble that of Texas in 60 years, Hadley said. Many farmers believe climate is cyclic.

“Am I saying it can’t happen? No way I can say that. Is it unrealistic to believe that’s gospel? Yeah,” he said. “Part of me says they’re a little bit overreacting.”

More than 100 experts and more than 50 organizations, including many Indiana universities, contributed to the research, which strives “to increase dialogue about Indiana’s changing climate among the public and decision makers.”

The 2017 global average temperature ranked third-warmest, and that year marked the 41st in a row with above-average temperatures, according to the initial report, issued in March. “If the climate were not warming, the chance of randomly having 41 above-average years in a row would be less than one in a trillion,” it states.

The speed with which climate changes are occurring has increased significantly in recent decades, the report says.

“Projections show the pace picking up even more speed as heat-trapping gases, produced by humans burning fossil fuels, continue accumulating in the atmosphere,” the report states. “Indiana will continue to warm, more precipitation will fall, and extremely hot days will be common in many parts of the state. These changing climate patterns affect us individually and affect many aspects of our society, including human health, public infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, energy use, urban environments and ecosystems.”

James Wolff, agriculture and natural resources educator with Purdue’s Allen County Extension office, said in the last couple of decades professionals like him have seen a pattern of heavier rains in May and June and more drought-like conditions in July and August. “That seems to (be) becoming more of a trend than individual year-to-year weather patterns,” he said.

While in the last couple of years it’s been easy for farmers to get out in fields in early April, it’s been wet or fields flood and they have to replant, he added.

“While the weather has gotten warm and you want to move up the planting date,” Wolff said, “it’s really challenging and sometimes frustrating when you’ve got to wait into the season to make sure that you’re able to get in the fields, and then if you do get in the fields that they don’t get flooded out and your crops can survive some of those wet conditions.”

rshawgo@jg.net 

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